Marine Protected Areas

WHAT’s proposed: Expanding Marine Protected Areas, offshore preserves where some types of fishing are banned. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is looking hard at adding four new sites and reconfiguring others to put more of the Continental Shelf off limits in the Southeast.

What it means: The MPAs could grow from 785 square miles to as much as 1,093 miles, taking away from South Carolina anglers prime bottom fishing spots such as the Georgetown Hole and the Edisto Banks off Charleston. More MPAs and a ban on surface fishing in MPAs also have been suggested and could be implemented, but are unlikely.

WHAT NEXT: The council will reconsider adding to MPAs at its December meeting, after reviewing new data. The earliest any additions would become law is 2015.

They call it the ledge, the brink of the Continental Shelf offshore. The bottom drops away, at some points in chasms for hundreds of feet.

Upwelling occurs here, currents pushing against the scarp and bringing up nutrients that feed the little fish that feed the bigger fish. So the fish-swarmed ledge is a big-time fishing ground, particularly those chasms. The most sought-after spots have names like the Georgetown Hole and the Edisto Bank.

These are the places that federal regulators are considering adding to areas that are already off-limits to bottom fishing for popular dinner-plate catches such as snapper and grouper. That has commercial and recreational anglers fuming. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council hasn’t done the studies to show whether, and how well, the current closures are working, they say — in other words, whether more closures are needed.

On Wednesday, the council agreed. A council committee recommended getting more information before making any decision on Marine Protected Areas. The full council was expected to approve that on Friday; a majority of council members sit on the committee.

The MPA proposal will be looked at again in December.

“I just don’t think we’re ready to (decide). We need to assess as best we can what (data) we have,” said Mel Bell, council member and S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries office director. “All options are still on the table.”

Tom Swatzel, a Murrells Inlet deep sea charter fisherman and a former council member, said he was pleased by the vote but is still concerned that an earlier proposal for a much larger closure still could be considered. That proposal would also close the areas to trolling, or surface fishing.

Conservation groups led by the PEW Charitable Trusts have pushed for the closure, saying the data that does exist indicates that fish such as the speckled hind and warsaw grouper have been seriously depleted.

Leda Dunmire, of the trust, said she was confident more MPA sites would be selected at the December meeting.

“The snapper/grouper committee took an important step forward to protect speckled hind and warsaw grouper where they live and spawn,” she said in a statement. “This is the kick-off to a year-long process that includes presentations on emerging science in December and several opportunities for the public to weigh in.”

The committee asked council staff for data such as how well current MPAs and law enforcement efforts are working. Commercial and recreational anglers have argued that studies had not been done since the current MPAs were implemented in 2009.

Bottom fishing for the snapper-grouper species is already under a series of restrictions because research indicates overfishing.

Under the proposal, four new MPAs would be created including the Georgetown Hole and the Edisto Bank, and existing areas would be realigned to protect more prime fish spawning grounds along the ledge.

What it would mean depends on where you sit:

Consumers could find it harder to buy local-caught snapper and grouper; restaurants and retailers might have to scratch harder for marketable local fish that might not be as appealing to the public.

The few commercial fishing operations left — already reeling from the series of catch and season restrictions — would have to move to less abundant spots to fish.

Charter boat captains wouldn’t have the sweet spots that come close to guaranteeing a catch to their customers.

Recreational anglers would be imposed on somewhat, but the fish found along the ledge’s sweet spot can be caught in other places, if not so abundantly.

Conservationists pushing the new MPAs point out that anglers can still fish along the edges of the closed areas, as they have been doing.

Mark Marhefka is a Shem Creek angler who has turned to custom fishing for retail and private seasonal-order customers — a move that was forced by the closures that essentially killed his wholesale business. He stocks many of the downtown Charleston restaurants that feature fresh catch.

The expanded MPA boundaries, he said, would take in that “edge” area, too.

“They’re taking in a huge swath (of ocean) at one time and there’s no need to do that,” he said.

Conservationists say an MPA functions like a wilderness preserve on land, a place where animals can thrive and move to adjacent lands, restoring the overall population.

“It’s a good conservation bang for the buck,” said Dunmire, of the PEW trust.

Marhefka disagrees with what he called a “spillover mindset.” The fish will stay where the feeding is good and competition among species will control the numbers, he said.

Steve Leasure, a tournament deep sea sports fisherman out of Charleston, also has led the effort to sink a memorial artificial reef in deep waters off the edge of the Continental Shelf partly to help restore bottom fish. MPAs are an attempt to treat the symptom, not the disease, he believes: There are too few fish at least partly because there are too few places for them. Most of the bottom between the shelf and the shore is soft sand without the structures and edges that fish like. The answer is more artificial reefs in more places.

Restricting fishing cuts through the coastal economy; the business and sport are said to bring $600 million per year.

“I don’t think people realize the economic impact of the fishery off our coast,” he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.