Fishing fight is on

Fishermen from coast to coast gather Wednesday in Washington to protest fishing regulations during a 'United We Fish' rally calling for reform of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. They say the law could put them out of business

Mark Marhefka couldn't get on one of the four buses that carried Lowcountry anglers to Washington, for a national protest Wednesday. The engine on the Amy Marie blew a valve.

But several thousand other anglers from across the country rallied outside the Capitol to demand changes to a new federal fisheries law they say isn't saving fish so much as destroying the industry.

Marhefka, the Shem Creek captain, is one of the last commercial fishermen operating out of Charleston. He had been running as far as Florida to catch golden tilefish because the offshore bottom here has been closed to catching red snapper and grouper, his specialties. He has found them so plentiful off the Carolinas' coast he named his business Abundant Seafood.

A few years ago, in response to fishing restrictions, he changed from a wholesale business to a niche specialty supplying fish to between 20 to 30 restaurants -- and driving as far Greenville to deliver it fresh.

Now he has turned to fishing friends for the fish he has promised his customers. The business has to run -- nobody is giving loans for new fishing boat engines.

"The quicker I can satisfy my customers, the quicker I can get my boat back on the water," he said. And that means more long runs down the coast. "This is the situation we're going to be in when they close those areas (permanently)."

Saltwater fishing is championed as a $600 million-per-year industry in South Carolina alone. The protesters in Washington were captains of commercial, charter and recreational boats -- three normally feuding groups who as recently as a few years ago were pointing to each other as the problem.

The groups for years have been in a pitched lobbying battle with each other and environmental groups to get the attention of federal regulators, as fishing restrictions were torqued tighter and tighter and boat after boat was tied up. This time they joined forces, knocked on a few doors and maybe made a dent.

"Everybody I talked to, their eyes and ears were open. They heard me loud and clear," said Mark Brown, a Shem Creek charter boat captain who spoke with every member of the state's legislative delegation.

"I think the picture is much bigger than just the closure. It's jobs, the boating industry," said Ace Parker, a Myrtle Beach recreational angler. "People are upset. But they're excited about coming together and talking about it. There's a lot of people here today and they're making a statement, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen. I think the tide is changing."

The law is a revision of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and ManagementAct that says that within one year of determining a fish stock is depleted, overfishing must be stopped in that region of the ocean. In the Southeast, it has become a series of severe restrictions that anglers claim is putting people out of business and keeping pleasure boats off the water for no good reason.

A newly passed regulation has banned catching red snapper during the winter spawning season; the law effectively closes the bottom to all fishing because anglers can't be sure which fish they will reel in. A stricter regulation that would ban bottom fishing over a 10,000-square-mile area of the South Atlantic could be voted on by a federal council as soon as June and enforced by 2011.

Scientists and environmentalists say the closures are needed -- the red snapper population is estimated to be only 3 percent of what it was in 1945; the red grouper is at about 21 percent of previous levels. But those estimates have been criticized for using incomplete count data, and regulators disparaged for a one-size-fits-all approach to an area that reaches from North Carolina to the Florida Keys.

But the only way to ease restrictions is to change the act. One of the bills aiming to do that was introduced Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C. It would keep federal regulators from closing fisheries unless the closure is the only option available to maintain the fishery at a sustainable level.

Brown said Congress generally is reluctant to weigh in on scientific data, and the bill's future isn't certain. The crowd that gathered for the "United We Fish" rally wasn't that large by Washington standards, but it reflects a large number of anglers and angling interests.

"We're going to work it hard. That's 10,000 miles of fish beds closed; it will put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of a job. I'm hoping these guys (the anglers) can at least get members of Congress to take a look at another option," he said.

The environmental advocate Pew Environment Group has pushed hard for the closures, saying that despite the hardship to the industry, significant changes are needed now to assure a healthy fishery in the future.

"It doesn't look like there's another option," said Holly Binns, manager for the group's campaign to end overfishing in the Southeast. But if another option can be found, the group would support it. "We don't want to close the fishery just to close it."

A new, somewhat more rigorous stock assessment of the fishery is due to be finished by December. That might give regulators more to work with.

"I think that's what a lot of folks are hoping for," she said.