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A red snapper sits on top of a pile of smaller vermilion snapper. File

Offshore fish stocks could soon be governed by better science or ravaged by loopholes in new rules, depending on which side you ask.

A contested bill to reorganize offshore fishing regulation is now in the U.S. Senate after passing the House of Representatives in a split vote. It pushes alternatives to the daily catch and season limits to restore game species.

Off South Carolina's coast, it could dramatically change how much stock is caught of popular game and commercial fish such as snapper and grouper.

For example, under the proposed rules, any fishing restriction to rebuild the stock would be based partly on how quickly the fish reproduce, not on the standard 10-year timetable, and would have to take consumer concerns into account. 

Fishing for nearly every sought-after offshore species is under a series of timetable restrictions because research indicates overfishing. Anglers have long argued their catches suggest more fish of nearly every regulated species are out there than current surveying suggests.

Federal regulators have conceded that and are working to improve the counts.

The proposed rules, a rework of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, would give anglers and regulators more line.

"Most anglers view it as a victory for them and for science," said Tom Swatzel, director of the South Carolina-based Council for Sustainable Fishing, which represents both commercial and recreational fishing interests.

"It's not the perfect fix-all. But it gives us more flexibility. That's what we need," said Chris Conklin, a Murrells Inlet commercial angler and a member of the South Atlantic Fish Management Council that regulates off South Carolina. "As managers, our hands have been tied for a long time." 

But the proposed rules also would allow for more exemptions and give Department of Commerce overseers more latitude to overrule regulatory management council decisions. Conservation groups worry the changes could lead to more intense fishing of the stocks that the original act was designed to protect in order to rebuild.

"It could take us back to the days (before the act) when a lot of fish were overfished. Without hard (timetable) deadlines, critical decisions get delayed time and time again," said Holly Binns, the Southeast director of ocean conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"There's been a lot of progress made over the past two decades," said Ted Morton, the trust's ocean conservation director. "Thirty species are still overfished around the country. But that's the lowest number since (the act took effect)."

The bill faces a Senate with any number of more pressing issues, and is the third House try to update the act in the past nine years. So its fate isn't certain in the current legislative session. A House attempt last year died in committee. 

"The Senate takes a more deliberative approach," Morton said.

"The Senator and our staff are still reviewing the bill," said Ken Farnaso, press secretary for Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. "The Senator knows how important both our commercial and recreational fishing industries are, and as Magnuson-Stevens comes to the Senate he will work to ensure South Carolina’s priorities are heard."

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.