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Red snapper season to change for SC anglers as 25-year rebuilding plan continues

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

The catch was too good last summer. So many savory red snapper were hooked offshore that federal regulators have shortened the brief season for July by one day.

That may not sound like much, but it's big stuff.

The tasty seafood favorite fish has come back, 10 years after the stock was so depleted that regulators enforced tight catch and season limits.

A two-weekend season launched last year was cut this year from six days to five, an adjustment based on the previous catch intended to keep enough breeding snapper out there.

But as South Atlantic Fish Management Council members approved the limit this year, they heard the usual question from anglers: How much longer do you need to restrict it at all?

An answer might come as soon as next year.

'Seeing in the water'

The 2020 assessment of the snapper population might show the fish recovering quicker than expected. After a previous assessment showed promise for black sea bass, the council cut short its rebuilding program, extending the bass season and loosening the catch restrictions.

But the snapper is a longer-lived, slower reproducing fish than the bass, and regulators don't expect much change to a 25-year rebuilding program in only its seventh year.

More fish are in the water but a lot of them are younger fish that show the restrictions are working, said Mel Bell, a council member and S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

"Nobody on the council or in the NOAA Fisheries is saying there aren't a lot of fish out there," Bell said. "We understand the frustration among anglers. Right now, we're pretty much legally bound to stay within the annual catch limit."

Bell said some adjustment is possible, depending on the assessment. That's not likely to be enough to make anglers happy.

"Red snapper abundance data discovered in 2017 confirms what fishermen are seeing on the water — red snapper are everywhere, including areas where they have never been seen before," said Tom Swatzel, director of the South Carolina-based Council for Sustainable Fishing, which represents both commercial and recreational fishing interests.

Swatzel is a former council member.

"The data shows that there are three times more red snapper now than when the fishery was closed and substantially more than at any point since 1990," he said.


According to NOAA Fisheries, the number of older, spawning red snapper population plunged in the 1990s to as low as 2 percent of the fish needed to sustain the species. The depletion came as the numbers and gear of commercial and recreational anglers improved.

Since restrictions took effect, the numbers have soared. 

Ten years ago, you had to go deeper than 100 feet to find the bottom dwelling snapper. Now anglers are pulling them in from reefs as shallow as 50 feet or less.

Capt. Chris Gaffney, of Wahoo Fishing Charters in Charleston, told The Post and Courier the fish have been caught at those depths along the Caper Reef off Isle of Palms.

Gaffney usually takes customers out deeper than 100 feet, he said. The snapper are plentiful out there.

"We catch them one after the other whenever we go bottom fishing," he said. It hampers his business. "The customers bring up this beautiful fish and you have to tell them they have to put it back."

As regulators wrestle with the restrictions, a rework in the laws is changing the field that includes improving how catch data is collected and more attention to reviving "by-catch" snapper fish before they are returned to the water. By-catch is a fish inadvertently caught when angling for other species.

Because deeper-water fish often can't adjust to the pressure change, by-catch mortality is considered one of the leading threats to the species recovery.

The rework "could help better document the explosion in the number of red snapper," Swatzel said. "It could also help in reopening the fishery by applying more realistic management tools."

Meanwhile, for 2019, recreational anglers will be able to keep one fish per person per day with no minimum size limit throughout the Southeast coastal states. The weekend season is from July 12 to July 14, then July 19 and 20.

Commercial boats can begin keeping the fish July 8 until the limit total, about 12,000 pounds, is caught.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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