A large cusp of the offshore bottom along the Continental Shelf would be closed to fishing from Charleston to south Florida under a plan tentatively approved Friday by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
The area proposed for closing, from about 100 to 240 feet deep, would prohibit fishing at deep-sea sweet spots but leaves open a few prized locations closer to shore.
Local commercial and recreational anglers have been among the large numbers that opposed closing the bottom in the four states regulated by the council, saying it wasn't needed and would drive them out of business. Advocates such as the PEW Environmental Group have pushed hard for stricter regulations, saying the short-term damage to the industry is necessary to provide for the species long-term.
The council picked the area as a preferred alternative from a number of options under consideration for closure to save the imperiled red snapper. The decision was made at a meeting in Atlantic Beach, N.C. The alternative will be reviewed in May 2010 and could get a final vote in June. But the closure might not come before a new stock assessment is finished in December 2010.
"We would still be able to fish some," said Mark Brown, a Shem Creek charter boat captain in Mount Pleasant. "But a lot could change before June. We'll just have to see how this all plays out."
The volatile decision Friday reversed a committee decision Thursday that would have closed a far larger area, including the water directly off Charleston. It followed a year of heated public hearings and a grueling, sometimes heated council meeting in September where members did not reach a decision.
Closing a large enough span of the bottom could virtually remove local catches of sought-after grouper from the hook, restaurant plates and seafood stores because the grouper is a bottom fish like the snapper. It would curtail most commercial and recreational fishing, disrupting the saltwater fishing that is championed as a $600 million-per-year industry in South Carolina alone.
The vote was made working against a December deadline mandated by a new, stricter federal law that said the council must have rules in place by 2010 that would stop overfishing of the snapper. The closure is one of a number of regulations in process to protect snapper-grouper species, that council counts indicate have been depleted.
But whatever rules are put in place might not stay there for long.
The decision is being made as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing new guidances for assessing fish stocks and begins a long-expected move to allocating catch shares, or giving anglers a specific number of fish they can catch rather than limits on individual species, while limiting the number of anglers who can fish.
Meanwhile, congress members, including U.S. Rep Henry Brown, R-S.C., are discussing legislation that would force regulators to put more emphasis on the economic impact when deciding fishing restrictions.
Reach Bo Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5744.