Southeastern coastal anglers could see August reopening of red snapper fishery
Amendment 43 awaiting NOAA approval
CHARLESTON, South Carolina – Saltwater anglers from North Carolina to South Florida could soon be gearing up for the re-opening of a fishery that has become one of the most hotly debated throughout the southeastern coast.
Under a proposal currently being reviewed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, a limited catch-and-keep season for red snapper could occur off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida as early as the first weekend in August, allowing sport and commercial anglers to legally keep the prized bottom-fish for the first time since 2014.
Submitted to NOAA in May by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC), Amendment 43 of the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for the Snapper Group Fishery of the South Atlantic Region would allow three-day recreational red-snapper openings in August under a total catch quota of 29,656 fish, and commercial openings that would last until 124,815 pounds of whole weight (12, 854 fish) are caught.
“Economically, the re-opening of red snapper would be HUGE for so many of these ports in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida,” said Mark Brown, the current vice-chair/chairman-elect of the SAFMC. “Those fish are caught as far north as Calabash and Little River, North Carolina, all the way south through Key West and into the Gulf. This is a very prevalent species, and when people see that they can keep them, it’ll be exciting for them.”
A species on the rebound
Brown has a unique perspective on Amendment 43: in addition to his duties as the chairman-elect of the SAFMC, he’s a full-time charter captain running out of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina and a former commercial long-liner out of Daytona, Florida. He witnessed firsthand the gradual deterioration of snapper populations, the creation of the snapper-group FMP in 2010, and the ensuing fishing restrictions (and eventual outright closures) that followed.
Following limited harvests in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and complete closures since then, Brown asserts that the red snapper population is surging, an opinion that’s backed up by independent studies (the Southeast Reef Fish Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s red snapper reef sampling program) that indicate improved red-snapper abundance in the South Atlantic.
“Now that we’ve had the closures and mini-seasons since 2010, the red snapper population has exploded. We have them all over every wreck we fish out of the Charleston area,” Brown says. “You go out on any day trying to catch black seabass, and you’ll end up catching a dozen red snapper that you have to throw back. I remember going out on the head boats out of Daytona back in the 1970s, and we never saw the snapper numbers that we do now. There are places where you pull up on a wreck and fish swim up to the boat like they’re in an aquarium.”
Fisheries in flux
Such prolific snapper numbers are a stark contrast to 2008, when the SAFMC was notified that the red snapper population was being dramatically overfished, and that populations were in a “stable collapse.” Restrictive measures were enacted in 2010-11, preventing all red-snapper harvest inside a 4,800-square-mile zone in southern Georgia and north Florida.
Those restrictions were subsequently lifted, allowing red-snapper fishing under an emergency rule change in 2012, and further fishing under Amendment 28 in 2013 and 2014. Those openings, though, demonstrated an alarming exploitation rate of landings and estimated “dead discards” that was nearly double the accepted biological catch (ABC) in 2014, and projected to be nearly 340 percent of the ABC in 2017.
“Fishery science told us that we had issues, and we had to get a handle on how to more accurately account for fish mortality from catching and releasing a species that exists in the same (environment) as several other species that aren’t under restriction,” Brown says. “That’s a difficult issue to try to solve.”
Looking ahead to snapper season 2018
If approved, the benefits of a red snapper fishery this year are threefold: private anglers would be able to harvest a favored species; fishing-dependent businesses in ports such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Brunswick, N.C., would receive economic boosts; and federal and state fisheries managers would collect catch data and biological samples that would help inform future population assessments of red snapper in the South Atlantic.
“These openings will allow us to show that the fish are healthy, and that we can possibly open this fishery up for longer periods of time,” Brown says. “People really want to see this fishery open. In my opinion, it’s a recovered, robust fishery, and an important fishery for ports in Florida, where it’s one of their main species. People all over the coast would fish more, they’d buy more gear, and it would be a benefit to a lot of different people.”
AMENDMENT 43 INFORMATION
- Proposal: To open limited red snapper fisheries for both sport and commercial harvest in 2018
- Where: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida
- When: Sport seasons, if approved, would run Friday, Saturday and Sunday on yet-to-be-determined weekends in August
- Limits: Recreational anglers would be allowed one red snapper per day, until a quota of 29,656 fish was met