Recreational anglers reacted sharply Thursday to news that black sea bass might be back off limits by October -- four months after the catch was reopened.
"It's alarming to have a likely fishery closure just five months after the black sea bass season reopened, despite a substantial reduction in the bag limit back in June," said Tom Swatzel, a Murrells Inlet deep-sea charter fisherman.
"A lot of the fishermen are saying 'Fine, restrict the bag limits (more). Just let us keep fishing," said Legare Smith, of Mount Pleasant.
Federal regulators dropped the bomb at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting in Charleston. Based on survey counts made in June and head-boat counts made through August, the catch could reach its pre-set annual limit in October, said Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Service regional administrator.
"No decision has been made yet. Based on the numbers we have, that's a possibility," he said. The counts indicate 45 percent of the annual limit already has been caught, he said. In the Southeast, that annual limit is now 409,000 pounds.
There's one big "if" that could save the fishery that keeps people on the water most of the winter. The survey count in June was made before tighter restrictions were put in place, dropping the bag limit from 15 to five.
The bag limit might have slowed the rate the fish were being caught, Crabtree said. Regulators won't know until the next round of counts come back in early October.
The startling news comes just as anglers have gotten accustomed to fishing for black sea bass again.
The recreational black sea bass fishery was shut down for the first time in February by the fisheries service when reports indicated that the newly installed annual catch limit had been reached.
The season didn't reopen until June, the start of the new fishery year. An October closure could put the fish off limits for another seven months.
The closure is mandated partly by federal law designed to end overfishing and partly by a management plan put in place to meet that law.
The first-time closure outraged anglers, who said there are plenty of the bass out there and that federal counts have been incomplete and spotty.
Regulators have conceded that their surveys could be better.
The fishery management council expects a reworked black sea bass stock assessment report in December. That "hopefully" will indicate that enough fish are out there to increase the annual catch limit, making for longer recreational as well as commercial seasons," said charter fisherman Swatzel, who is also a council member.
The black sea bass is the go-to offshore catch -- tasty, always around and easy enough to hook that it routinely fills coolers.
"Black sea bass, that's the only thing you can catch sometimes," said Smith, the Mount Pleasant angler. "You have to wade through them to reach other fish." Reaching the annual limit so quickly suggests there are more fish out there than regulators are setting limits for, he said.
"There's no doubt we need some management. But everybody agrees the (survey count) science isn't being done properly. It's a shame they're having to make these snap decisions (to meet the mandate) before they have the proper assessments," Smith said.
"People are going to be upset. (Black sea bass) are always there. It's like catching finfish inshore -- anybody can do it," said Mike Able Jr., of Haddrell's Point Tackle & Supply.
He said he suspects that the next counts might show a drop-off in the catch. "I think as a whole, people have not been bottom fishing a lot. But the ones who have have been pretty productive."