At its March meeting in St. Simons Island, Ga., the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) reviewed and voted on several measures that will affect fishermen on the east coast from Florida to North Carolina, including a reduction in the daily creel limit for black sea bass to make sure the fishery is not forced to close as it was this past winter.

The SAFMC approved Amendment 9 to the Snapper Grouper Management Plan which lowers the recreational bag limit for black sea bass from 15 to five per person, beginning June 1. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce must approve the measure before it becomes effective.

The SAFMC was forced to close the recreational season on black sea bass on Feb. 12, 2011, when statistics indicated that the annual recreational quota had been met or possibly exceeded. The lower creel limit is aimed at keeping the season open year-round, a move that thrilled charterboat captains.

"This will allow myself and other charter operators to fish some during the winter and early spring when the snapper and grouper seasons are closed," said Capt. Butch Foster of Yeah Right Charters in Southport, N.C..  "This year, with sea bass closed, nobody was interested in going, and I couldn't blame them. It won't be like when everything is open and biting, but I believe being able to keep some black sea bass will help us work a little during the winter and spring." 

The fishing year for black sea bass in the South Atlantic region is June 1 to May 31. The recreational allocation is 409,000 pounds, 57 percent of the total allowable catch. NOAA Fisheries Service will have final catch figures for the past season by June 1.

A new benchmark stock assessment for black sea bass will be completed later this year, and the results will be presented to the SAFMC during its December 5-9, 2011 meeting in Raleigh, N.C.  Black sea bass stocks are currently in the fifth year of a 10-year rebuilding program.

Fishermen have repeatedly provided comments to the SAFMC regarding the negative economic impacts of the recreational closure that began in February.  Charter and headboat operators rely on black sea bass while the shallow-water grouper season is closed from January through April and the vermilion snapper season is closed from November through March.  There is also currently a year-round prohibition on the harvest of red snapper for both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Amendment 9 would also create commercial trip limits of 1,500 pounds gutted weight for vermilion snapper and 1,000 pounds for gag grouper.  The proposed commercial trip limit for greater amberjack would increase slightly from 1,000 to 1,200 pounds.  The SAFMC hopes to have all aspects of Amendment 9 approved by the Secretary of Commerce in time for the opening of the recreational black sea bass season on June 1, 2011.

The SAFMC also reviewed public comments about preferred management measures for other fish, including dolphin and wahoo. The preferred choice for wahoo is to keep the current limits in lace, while dolphin bag limits for recreational fishermen would remain the same, except for establishing a 20-inch (fork length) size minimum off the South Carolina coast. This amendment will be reviewed by SAFMC at its June meeting. Currently, the daily limit for wahoo is two per fisherman, while the daily dolphin limit is 10 per angler, with a boat limit of 60 and no sale of wahoo or dolphin by charterboats, headboats or private boats.

The SAFMC also reviewed public comments relative to the use of catch shares in commercial fisheries and approved a motion to terminate all work relative to catch share development as currently outlined in draft Amendment 21 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan.  There was an exclusion to this for catch share development for the golden crab and wreckfish fisheries.

At its June meeting, the SAFMC will review proposals to establish annual catch limits for king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and cobia based on information gathered at public hearings in April. I