PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - JUNE 18, 2017 (Corrected)
Members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council gathered in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida this week, where red snapper and cobia fisheries continued to dominate discussions. The harvest of red snapper is currently prohibited in federal waters ranging from three to 200 miles off the South Atlantic coast as the stock continues to rebuild. The recreational fishery for Atlantic cobia (Georgia to New York) closed in federal waters earlier this year as a result of harvest estimates from NOAA Fisheries showing the annual catch limit was exceeded in 2016.
The Council received a presentation by NOAA Fisheries during this week’s meeting showing that the estimated number of red snapper removed (landings plus dead discards) exceeded the acceptable biological catch in 2016, a situation that has kept the fishery closed for the past two years under the current management plan. The removals are primarily associated with the recreational fishery where red snapper are captured and released while fishermen target other co-occurring species. Approximately 28% of the fish released by recreational anglers are estimated to die primarily due to barotrauma, the physical damage to body tissues caused by differences in pressure as the fish is being retrieved.
Meanwhile, Council members, with representatives from both commercial and recreational fisheries, focused on how to allow limited harvest of red snapper beginning in 2018. “Council members and members of the public have repeatedly expressed their frustration at the increasing numbers of red snapper that are being released as this stock recovers,” said Council Chair Dr. Michelle Duval. “While we explore measures to allow limited harvest we must also be cautionary in our approach to not allow overfishing to occur should the fishery reopen next year.”
After lengthy discussion, the Council approved modifying draft Amendment 43 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan to include a single action to revise annual catch limits for red snapper. The draft amendment would remove the current process and equation used to specify the annual catch limit and includes alternatives for establishing an annual catch limit for 2018 ranging from approximately 23,600 to 76,000 fish. The intent is to expedite the amendment by holding public hearings via webinar in August, in-person hearings at the Council’s September meeting, and approving the amendment for Secretarial review at that time. The new measures could be in place in time to allow limited harvest beginning in July of 2018.
Earlier in the week, the Council hosted a workshop on “Improving the Survival of Released Fish”. Eight speakers presented on best practices for reducing discard mortality, including the use of various descending devices, minimizing handling, and other practices. “These best fishing practices show the cumulative positive affects recreational anglers can have in reducing mortality of fish that are released,” stated Council member Chester Brewer, a recreational representative from West Palm Beach, Florida. “It is imperative that anglers learn about these tools and put them to good use.” Workshop information and the presentations are available from the Council’s website at: http://safmc.net/briefing-books/2017-june-council-meeting-briefing-book/.