Federal regulators are looking at further restricting bottom fishing offshore in the Southeast by expanding a series of Marine Protected Areas where the fishing is not allowed.
That means putting more snapper and grouper off limits — the popular restaurant plate catches already under a series of restrictions. It’s been proposed as a method to protect the speckled hind and Warsaw grouper, two of those fish said to be in serious decline.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will decide whether to move ahead with proposals that could increase the MPA areas from 785 square miles to 1,093 square miles. Existing areas would be realigned to protect more prime spawning grounds along the edge of the Continental Shelf. It wouldn’t end offshore fishing for those species; anglers could still bottom-fish around those grounds. But the grounds include such marquee spots off South Carolina as the Georgetown Hole and Edisto Banks.
Some recreational and commercial anglers also are worried about earlier proposals that would also ban in the areas “trolling,” or fishing for popular surface catch, such as dolphinfish, wahoo or marlin.
Council members, meeting this week at the Charleston Marriott, have said they will not consider those options. But they will be part of a committee discussion, at least. That has spurred widely disseminated outrage among anglers.
Some commercial anglers say even adding to the bottom ban is likely not necessary given other protections, and the council hasn’t done the studies on whether current restrictions are working, that would show whether it’s needed.
The proposal is “a misguided reaction to radical environmental groups that are pushing for extraordinary and unjustifiable protections for two deep-water grouper species,” said Tom Swatzel, a Murrells Inlet deep-sea charter fisherman who is a former council member.
Leda Dunmire, of the PEW Charitable Trusts, one of the premier conservationist groups battling for the proposal, is frank, saying the additions would further protect not only those two species but others.
“It’s a means to an end,” she said. “Get more fish out there for more people to go fishing. Let’s use every tool in the book.”
A council committee is expected to vote by Wednesday whether to recommend to the full council an amendment that would give a formal go-ahead for the plan. The full council will vote Thursday or Friday. If the committee makes the recommendation, the public will have two chances to comment, Wednesday and Thursday, before the final council vote.
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