Federal red snapper rules advance toward approval despite criticism
Don't snip snapper season says anglers.

Red snappers
'I don’t think Regulatory Amendment 35 is the answer.'

New federal regulations on red snapper are on their way to final approval, and neither the people voting for the plans nor federal officials have much faith in them.

The Snapper-Grouper Committee of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) shepherded along Amendment 35, which is part of the SAFMC’s efforts to reduce overfishing of red snapper. Final approval is expected later in the week, despite its unpopularity among some Council members and from NOAA Fisheries.

“Bottom line for me is I don’t think (Amendment) 35 does anything for us,” NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Andy Strelcheck said at the SAFMC’s quarterly meetings on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

“I don’t think it’s a solution, I think it’s just going to create more anger with anglers, I think it’s ultimately not addressing the crux of the problem, which is, obviously, reducing discards and trying to shift discards to landed catch.”

The committee’s options at this point in the process were either to approve a proposal that significantly reduced catch limits, or approve one that shut down the fishery altogether, with the exception of those with exempted fishing permits.

The committee went with the reduced limits, in which the acceptable biological catch number drops from 53,000 fish to 28,000. The commercial annual catch limit goes from 124,815 pounds whole weight to 77,016, in one year. The recreational annual catch limit declines from 29,656 fish to 19,119.

“There were a lot of opinions in the public comment that this is a joke,” Council member and seafood restaurant owner Laurilee Thompson said.

“It’s not going to end overfishing, and we as a Council need to take some kind of positive action as quickly as we can to try to get some fish for people, so they can take them home instead of throwing them back in the ocean. I don’t think Regulatory Amendment 35 is the answer.”

Council member and charter boat captain Judy Helmey said there’s a group of anglers around where she is in Georgia who are pooling money to pay for fines incurred by illegally harvesting red snapper.

Whether there’s a recreational red snapper season this year and to what extent depends on when the new regulations go into effect. Expectations are for a one-day season.

“It’s a timing issue, right,” Strelcheck said. “So, we’re in March, most of our rule-making takes four to six months, (and) at this point I think it’s highly unlikely (Amendment) 35 would be in place by ’23. It would really be contingent on how quickly the Council turned around and submitted it to the agency, and how quickly we could actually do the rule-making, but timeline is tight.”

However, NOAA Fisheries isn’t necessarily a rubber stamp on the Council’s actions, and could reject the amendment.

“I think this is really the reality of the situation, and why I’m so frustrated, is even if we are able to achieve the reduction in discards and be on track with what we’re proposing here, that would leave us 28,000 fish for landed catch and 202,000 dead discards,” Strelcheck said.

“So, 230,000 fish will be killed under this preferred alternative, and only 28,000 landed. We’re not even achieving that, which means there’s more than 202,000 dead discards that are getting killed in this fishery, relative to what the science center projected as landed. That, to me, is the take-home for all of us, is that we want to shift that and figure out how to flip-flop that.”

Rejecting the amendment would open the door to interim rules, and potentially a NOAA-crafted plan, instead. Should federal officials give their approval, expectations are for the regulations to become effective later this year.

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


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