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Addition of no-fishing zones off S.C. coast makes no sense

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As an avid offshore fisherman and state House member representing coastal areas of Charleston and Georgetown counties, I support sustainable fisheries.

Commercial and recreational fishing is important for our coastal economy and we want to protect the resource.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has proposed creating more no-fishing zones from North Carolina to Key West in an effort to protect spawning snapper and grouper. While this proposal sounds noble, in reality it has no basis in any fishery rebuilding plan and duplicates hundreds of square miles of existing no-fishing Marine Protected Areas designed to provide the same spawning protections.

The largest of the proposed spawning Special Management Zones would be 15.2 square miles of the famed Georgetown Hole, located 55 miles off Georgetown. Its closure to bottom fishing would unnecessarily hurt fishermen and related businesses.

The SAFMC approved about 700 square miles of no-bottom-fishing MPAs that were implemented in 2009 to provide protections for, according to SAFMC documents, “spawning aggregations” and “areas where spawning activity of snapper-grouper has been recorded.” About 170 square miles of these MPAs are off South Carolina.

How effective have these MPAs been in protecting snapper and grouper, particularly spawning?

No one knows.

Six years after the MPAs have been in place, there has been no monitoring to determine their effectiveness because the SAFMC has yet to adopt a monitoring and evaluation plan.

The SAFMC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have effectively closed even more areas by designating nearly 24,000 square miles of deep-water coral habitat as areas of particular concern in which bottom fishing is substantially restricted by prohibitions on anchoring and bottom longlines.

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Additionally, a four-month grouper spawning season closure has been in effect since 2009.

Snapper-grouper fishermen and related businesses have endured severe economic hardships since the rigid annual catch limits and accountability measures of the 2007 Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization came into effect. From 2007 through 2013, overall snapper-grouper fishing effort in the South Atlantic has fallen 45 percent and overall landings have fallen 20 percent. Not many businesses can survive this kind of reduction in revenue.

Of the 59 snapper-grouper species managed by the SAFMC, just six are now considered experiencing overfishing or are overfished. None of the mandatory fishery rebuilding plans requires any additional closed fishing areas for success.

Until the SAFMC and NOAA can properly assess spawning activity and other fishery biological information within the existing MPAs, it’s wrong and unfair to fishermen and fishing communities to close more fishing areas without solid justification. Instead of focusing on unnecessarily closing more live bottom fishing areas, the SAFMC and NOAA should follow the lead of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in building offshore artificial reefs on unproductive sandy bottom, not for fishing, but as havens for snapper and grouper that will build fishery biomass without closing live bottom areas and hurting fishermen.

SCDNR has constructed two mid-shelf artificial reefs on sandy bottom of which the locations have been kept secret so they would not be fished. Last year, SCDNR led an effort to sink a ship and other materials in a deep-water MPA over sandy bottom, at a cost about $450,000, to create another experimental artificial reef.

These artificial reefs are great investments and merit SMZ or MPA protections. I very much support these efforts, as I believe most fishery stakeholders do.

The SAFMC needs to listen to fishermen and coastal businesses and take a justifiable approach to any further no-fishing zones.

Stephen Goldfinch, a Republican, lives in Murrells Inlet and represents District 108 (parts of Georgetown and Charleston counties) in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

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