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June 22, 2010

Red snapper fishery remains closed in South Atlantic

Additional regulations to end overfishing and restore stock approved for review by Secretary of Commerce

The red snapper fishery remains closed to both commercial and recreational fishermen throughout federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore) in the South Atlantic region.  Measures taken by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council during its meeting in Orlando, Florida this past week may determine how long the closure stays in place as well as other regulations impacting fishermen who target the 73 species that make up the snapper grouper management complex.  The additional regulations could be implemented by December of this year.

Members of the Council, in a 9-4 vote, approved Amendment 17A to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan to end overfishing of red snapper and rebuild the South Atlantic stock during its meeting in Orlando.  The amendment is designed to meet the Congressional mandates of the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act and must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce before regulations become effective.


Management Measures in Amendment 17A

Management measures that may be implemented later this year through Amendment 17A include 1) a continuation of the closure of the red snapper fishery; 2) a new area closure off of northeastern Florida and southern Georgia, where fishing for all snapper grouper species in water depths of 98 - 240 feet would be prohibited (with the exception of spearfishing and use of black sea bass pots); 3) a requirement for the use non-stainless steel circle hooks when fishing for snapper grouper species north of 28 degrees N. latitude; and 4) the development of a fishery-independent monitoring program to help track the rebuilding and recovery of red snapper.

In addition to the red snapper closure, the area closure is necessary to reduce harvest of red snapper by 76%, including the estimated number of fish that die even when released.  The area closure has been a highly controversial issue, and the Council has discussed its size and configuration over the past year in an effort to meet the mandates of the Act and minimiz­­­e negative economic and social impacts.  The Council reduced the size of the area, eliminating more than 1200 square miles off the coast of Georgia, after modifying the biological parameters and considering other variables such as enforcement compliance and effort shifts in the fishery.

However, if regulations in Amendment 17A are implemented in December, those regulations could quickly change.  A new stock assessment for red snapper is underway and the results will be available to the Council during its December 6-10, 2010 meeting in New Bern, NC.  Restrictions may be modified, depending on the results of the new assessment.  Fishermen are hoping the new assessment reflects their observations of increases in the number and sizes of red snapper, and less stringent regulations will be adopted by the Council.

Public Comment

More than 200 fishermen crowded into the Council's public comment session during the meeting in Orlando to express their concerns about the impacts of the continued closure of the red snapper fishery and the regulations proposed in Amendment 17A.   A series of public hearings held by the Council in November 2009 was also well attended, with fishermen from the Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, Florida area particularly concerned about the possibility of an area closure.  Many fishermen, primarily those involved in the commercial king mackerel fishery, also spoke out against the use of catch share programs.  The Council's Mackerel Committee met jointly with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's Committee to determine alternatives for addressing annual catch limits, accountability measures, and other mandates of the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act.  The Gulf Council is forming an advisory panel of fishermen to consider catch shares in the Gulf, and fishermen from the South Atlantic will also serve on the AP.  There are currently no plans in place to implement catch shares for the king mackerel fishery in the South Atlantic.

Spiny lobster fishermen from both the Gulf and South Atlantic Council's advisory panels also met with committee members to discuss alternatives for annual catch limits and other mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.  A stock assessment for spiny lobster is underway this year.  Both spiny lobster and king mackerel are managed jointly by the two councils.

The South Atlantic Council is developing a Comprehensive Annual Catch Limit Amendment to address the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act mandates, and public hearings will be held later this year. The Council will meet again September 13-17, 2010 in Charleston, South Carolina.  Meeting information, including Summary Motions from the June meeting in Orlando, will be posted on the Council's Web site at www.safmc.net as it becomes available.