Council OKs spawning sanctuary in part of Georgetown Hole

Freeman Boatworks owner Billy Freeman fights a blackfin tuna during a trip to the Georgetown Hole in 2014. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted Thursday to close off 3.1 square miles of the hole,

Maybe the best gauge of the compromise reached on closing bottom fishing in the fabled Georgetown Hole is that neither conservationists nor the fishing industry is happy.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted Thursday in Hilton Head to close off 3.1 square miles of the offshore fishing mecca after looking at options as varied as closing off 15 square miles to not closing the Hole at all. The move would reserve the acreage as a marine spawning sanctuary to help restore the lost stock, particularly those huge brood stock “trophy fish” that are rarely, if ever, caught today. Council also voted to close two artificial reef areas totaling about 6 square miles.

Conservation interests say they will continue to fight for more. Fishing interests said they will continue to fight for less.

“We felt we did the right thing, or at least I did,” said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director, who is a member of the council. The site “has the highest probability of success and the highest probability of obvious success,” he said. In other words, council staff should be able to track spawning changes.

The closure is expected to be reconsidered at the next council meeting in December and likely would go to final vote in March 2016.

The Georgetown Hole, or “Devil’s Hole,” is the stuff of legend — tiers and tiers of deep ocean ledges swarmed by species after species of fish. It’s the generations-old “sweet spot” where boats once pulled in holds full of the monsters seen in old photos, grouper and other game fish almost as big as a man.

Making the areas sanctuaries also could put them off limits to other uses, such as exploration and potential drilling for oil and natural gas, because the fishery council is one of the agencies that comments on the environmental impact of leasing decisions.

The Hole sits about 50 miles off and slightly north of Charleston, a distinct promontory along a scarp of the Continental Shelf, sticking out much like a seashore cape. It remains the destination for nearly anyone who heads offshore with a line.

Wayne Mershon is a commercial fisherman from Murrells Inlet who sits on the council committee that recommended the sanctuary. He opposes the sanctuary and proposed an alternative site to its north. “They did what they could do, obviously. But they had a lot of opposition,” he said.

The three square miles are the prime grounds in a 10-square-mile area that is the meat of the hole, Mershon said. “We all know Georgetown Hole is a popular (fishing) area. You’re taking away the best of it. Even a one-mile closure would take the best part.”

Trolling, or fishing off the bottom would still be allowed, but a lot of anglers don’t realize that it won’t be legal to even pass through the area with bottom fish in the hold, Mershon said.

Among conservation groups pushing to close the Hole were parties not concerned about fishing so much as putting as much area as possible off-limits to offshore exploration and drilling, he said.

“They’re not even stakeholders,” Mershon said. “It’s not over yet.”

Conservation groups didn’t come away any happier.

“We’re happy the fish will get some protection. We don’t think it’s enough. But it’s a start. (The council) is headed in the right direction,” said Leda Dunmire, Southeast oceans manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “It is critical that struggling populations of snapper and grouper have safe places to spawn if we are serious about protecting our fisheries for the future. We hope the council will strengthen its proposal when they discuss it again.”

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