One of the options is closing large areas of federal waters to all snapper and grouper fishing, which would affect waters offshore of South Carolina through north/central Florida.
"We know these alternatives are going to have significant economic impacts, but the Council must end overfishing - and long-term, that's a good thing," said Duane Harris, SAFMC's chairman. "But there will certainly be huge consequences to recreational- and commercial-fishing communities. There doesn't appear to be any way to avoid these consequences while ending overfishing for red snapper."
The SAFMC discussed six recommendations provided by the advisory panels and fishermen, and it formulated an additional management alternative that may allow designated "fishing zones" for snapper/grouper species within the proposed closed areas.
One alternative is to do nothing, and a second is a complete closure of the entire area. Five other alternatives involve closing some zones and leaving others open to fishing.
These fishing zones will have stringent requirements, including special permits for both commercial and recreational fishermen and may require the use of Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) to track fishermen's movements, electronic logbook reporting, text message reporting for recreational fishermen and other requirements.
Red snapper fishing would be prohibited within the areas, but some fishermen may be selected to harvest red snapper for biological sampling. Overfishing along the South Atlantic region is so severe and discard mortality is high enough the fishing zones would close after a specified amount of red snapper discards have been recorded.
The 2008 stock assessment for red snapper in the South Atlantic showed the stock to be overfished and undergoing overfishing at eight times the sustainable level. In March, the SAFMC requested an interim rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to close the commercial and recreational red snapper fishery, as required by the mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
The request for a closure is being reviewed by NOAA. According to Dr. Roy Crabtree, Regional Administrator for NMFS's Southeast Regional Office, a closure is not likely until after the end of October this year. Until the closure is approved, the red snapper fishery remains open with a current recreational creel limit of two fish per day included in a 10-snapper aggregate bag limit, and a 20-inch total-length size minimum for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
Because of the high mortality of discarded red snapper, a closure of the red snapper fishery will not be sufficient to end the overfishing, so long-term measures are being developed. Measures to address the other nine species listed as undergoing overfishing - speckled hind, Warsaw grouper, golden tilefish, snowy grouper, black grouper, black sea bass, gag, red grouper, and vermilion snapper - are also being addressed. These alternatives include a deepwater closure, specified quotas and allocations for some species.
Additional measures for snapper/grouper species are being considered. These include expanding the management unit northward (from North Carolina), limiting access for the commercial golden tilefish fishery and black sea bass pot fishery, and use of electronic logbooks.
A series of public hearings will be scheduled the first two weeks of November for comments on the proposed management measures. Details regarding about dates and locations will be publicized and posted on the SAFMC website (www.safmc.net) when they become available.
"We encourage the public to review the alternatives and attend the public hearings," Harris said.
The SAFMC has scheduled a public hearing on the snapper/grouper closures for Nov. 3 in New Bern.