Management ideas sought for snapper-grouper fishery

The battle over red snapper regulations was one of the hardest-fought and most bitter, though a series of more restrictive measures followed for black sea bass, vermilion snapper and other species.

Quotas limit some of tastiest fish that commercial anglers catch, popular species like snapper and grouper. The angler can haul them in until the limit is reached, then has to throw that fish back for the rest of the year — often killing it because it's a deep sea creature.

A change might be in the works to bring the fresh catch to the plate year-round. But it will be a hard one to hook.

Fishing groups want to expand what's called the exempted fishing permit to allow individual boats to form cooperatives, sharing the individual quotas and spacing the various catches to keep their boats on the water year-round. The approach operates off the West Coast and has been tried a few times in the Gulf of Mexico, with success.

Yet it's never really gotten past preliminary discussion with regulators in the South Atlantic, where the permits are used now mostly for specialty cases such as allowing South Carolina Aquarium trips to catch exhibit species. Allowing an overall harvest to continue, "that's not the intent," said Kim Iverson, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council spokeswoman.

In the Gulf, where the permit has been tried largely with headboats — or daily charters that take people offshore by the dozens — it's been opposed by recreational anglers, who say the extra catch is unfair to them. Along the Southeast coast, a generational onslaught of recreational anglers has virtually supplanted the declining commercial anglers as a political force weighing in with regulators. The two sides are more than occasionally antagonistic. 

Industry groups, such as the newly formed Seafood Harvesters of America, though, want to see it happen. This group, organized by a handful of veteran, successful commercial fisherman, represents more than 3,900 commercial vessels across the country, according to its officials.

They aren't messing around. One of their arguments for the change is that it would do a better job restoring and maintaining species as well as the catch because it would be better monitored, as part of the permit.

"The ocean is just not cranking out fish like it used to," said Jack Cox, an angler from Morehead City, N.C., who is on the harvesters board. "We're trying to get a way for the fisherman to buy into the science of how the fish are doing."

The move has "ecosystem management" on its side, the tag that covers NOAA Fisheries' shift to regulating fishing by conserving species with measures such as spawning preserves where fishing isn't allowed, rather than catch and season limits.

Smithsonian Marine Conservation Program researchers and collaborators recently announced they have come up with a new approach to preserving the spiny lobster in the Caribbean while not cutting into the popular catch there.

Charles Phillips, a Georgia commercial fisherman and aqua-farmer who is a member of the fishery management council board, said the cooperative approach should help stem the die-off from out-of-season by-catch, or throw backs — an ongoing problem in the council's otherwise somewhat successful, catch-and-season permit system.

Its supporters are working right now to make the plan as functional and practical as possible. Phillips expects a proposal to be brought to council in 2017.

The approach "actually helps the public access the resource all year and what is also important, allows fisherman to have a business plan. It doesn't allow more fish to be caught, it would just allow them to catch all year," he said.  "I'd like to think the council would say yes. It would be a reasonable thing to do."

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