An interim rule to close red-snapper fishing in federal waters from North Carolina to Florida was passed in a 7 to 6 vote by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) the first week of March. Once approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMF), the ban could begin as early as June, a devastating blow to Georgia’s fishing industry and to recreational fishermen alike.
Federal waters extend from 3 to 200 miles off the coast, and according to Capt. Judy Helmey, whose charter business has fished the coast of Georgia since 1948, the vast majority red snapper and bottom fishing occurs within those federal limits.
The 180-day ban, with a possible 186-day extension, is a stop-gap measure until more permanent regulations can be put in place. A federal act, signed into law in 2007 and known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, requires overfishing cease within a year for fisheries once they have been determined to be overfished, and this interim ban was necessary to meet that requirement before July. There is a fear in the fishing community that those permanent regulations will involve a widespread ban on bottom fishing.
The determination that the red-snapper fishery is overfished was made by a stock assessment which takes into account the harvest as reported by anglers. Anglers on the water have adamantly disputed those findings.
“I don’t understand, in these economic times, why they would do this, especially when it’s not warranted,” said Capt. Helmey. “Our stocks are strong, as strong as they’ve ever been… I don’t know how accurate the studies are because the fishing is better now than it’s ever been.”
Anglers presented their evidence of increased red-snapper catches to the council during public hearings prior to the ban, but the council has since countered, claiming in a press release that the increases are caused by two strong year classes of red snapper in 1998 and 1999 that have now reached legal size.
“Who are you going to believe, someone sitting in an office crunching numbers or the people who are actually out on the water?” asked John Wallace, a commercial shrimper who voted no to the ban as one of Georgia’s representatives to the SAFMC. “I just couldn’t vote to put about 1,000 people out of work. And this is just the beginning. Magnuson-Stevens requires we go strictly by the science. If we go by the science, all of it will be closed because of the interaction between snapper and other bottom fishing.”
The SAFMC, created to manage the coastal fisheries in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and the Atlantic coast of Florida by a 1976 act of the U.S. Congress, is composed of three representatives appointed by the U.S. secretary of commerce from a pool of people nominated by the governors of each state. Georgia’s representatives are Susan Shipman, the head of Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division, Wallace, a shrimper out of Meridian, and Duane Harris, the former director of Georgia’s Marine Resources Division and the current chairman of the SAFMC.
Shipman and Harris both voted for the ban. There was a 6-vote tie between the state representatives, which means the tie-breaking vote for the ban was cast by Dr. Roy Crabtree, the regional director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His seat is the federal vote on the council.
“There is not a tougher decision than closing a fishery,” said Harris. “We’ve delayed this vote until now, but the law requires that we have measures in place to address this overfishing by this July.”
“One person could have stopped all this madness,” said Capt. Helmey. “I never thought that I would see this in my whole life as a fisherman. It’s devastating to put people out of business just because they think the stocks are depleted.”