Federal fisheries managers are set to close another popular recreational fishery in the South Atlantic in the latest example of how chronic lapses in science and data-collection are wreaking havoc on the recreational angling sector. Less than two months after narrowly avoiding a massive closure of all bottom fishing in the South Atlantic to recover red snapper, federal managers have announced that black sea bass are set to become off-limits from February to June due to circumstances that sounds frustratingly familiar to anglers.
"When Congress strengthened the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006 in an effort to end overfishing, it did not intend NOAA Fisheries to achieve that goal simply by ending all fishing," said Chester Brewer, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association's National Government Relations Committee. "We need to end overfishing, but we have to have better data and more timely assessments before such harsh restrictions are imposed."
The last full benchmark assessment for black sea bass was conducted in 2001, and was simply updated in 2005. Based on those reports, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted a management plan in 2006 that used a constant catch strategy despite strong objections from CCA. The strategy allows for a slightly higher catch limit for the first three years of the plan, but locks in a lower limit until at least 2015. As the stock rebuilds, anglers are encountering black sea bass more often and, according to the government's notoriously suspect recreational catch data, anglers are over their quota by up to 30 percent.
Managers are once again left with using the most draconian management measure available to fix a problem that may not even exist anymore. Black sea bass were scheduled to undergo another full benchmark assessment in 2010, but the furor over red snapper delayed it until 2011.
"This is painfully like red snapper," said Mike Able, CCA South Carolina board member. "Managers are using a sledge hammer to enforce the findings of an assessment that is essentially 10 years old. We are urging the federal government to wait for the new assessment before taking such drastic action and examine conservation alternatives in the meantime, such as lower bag limits, to address overfishing. We have to find ways to achieve conservation that don't simply ban fishing."
Black sea bass are the latest demonstration of how unprepared NOAA Fisheries was to implement the ambitious goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006 to end rampant, serial overfishing.
"This is further confirmation that the Agency does not have the underpinnings to support the goals of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and it is vital that we continue to explore legislation that provides a bridge to the time when federal managers have the tools and the will to dedicate the funding to do their job the way Congress envisioned," said Jeff Angers, president of Center for Coastal Conservation, a coalition of leading advocates for marine recreational fishing and boating.