Stuart, FL –Nearly 40 fishermen and others interested in federal fishery management issues spoke during a public hearing held this week as part of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s week-long meeting in Stuart, Florida. The majority of comments focused on the need for an increase in the commercial king mackerel fishery off the southeastern coast of Florida during the second season that extends into the winter months (October 1st through the end of February). Since the 2015-16 season, the commercial fishery in the Southern Zone (Flagler/Volusia county line south) has harvested under 60% of their annual catch limit. The value of the unharvested quota is estimated $3,885,647 per season over the past four fishing seasons.
Fishermen explained that the current limit of 50 fish per trip often marginalizes profit and keeps fishermen from carrying crew, preventing a new generation of fishermen from getting involved in the fishery and presenting safety at sea issues. Fishermen also spoke about the recent negative economic impacts of severe weather and environmental factors such as poor water quality.
After considering public comment and recommendations from its Mackerel Cobia Advisory Panel, the Council approved a motion to request NOAA Fisheries use emergency action to increase the second season commercial king mackerel trip limit from 50 fish to 75 fish in the Southern Zone. The Council made the request with the intention of having the increase in place by the beginning of the October 1, 2019 opening. The Atlantic king mackerel stock is not overfished or undergoing overfishing, and it is not anticipated that the commercial quota will be exceeded with the increased trip limit.
“We sincerely appreciate the Council’s support in recognizing the importance of increasing the commercial king mackerel trip limit here in South Florida,” said Ira Laks, Chairman of the Council’s Mackerel Cobia Advisory Panel and a dual-permitted commercial/charter captain from Jupiter, Florida. “The Council considered input from its advisory panel as well as a number of mackerel fishermen who attended Wednesday night’s public hearing,” explained Laks. “I want to also thank all of the fishermen who took the time and effort to attend the hearing. It made a difference.”
A 2017 stock assessment for red grouper indicates the stock is overfished and undergoing overfishing. As a result, the Council reduced the annual catch limit for red grouper in 2018, but further measures are needed. The Council approved Snapper Grouper Regulatory Amendment 30 during its meeting this week. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the amendment will revise the rebuilding schedule for the red grouper stock and modify the spawning season prohibition off the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina, adding the month of May to the current January through April closure. The amendment would also establish a commercial trip limit of 200 pounds gutted weight for red grouper in federal waters.
The Council also discussed options for the red snapper fishery. The number of recreational fishing days for red snapper in federal waters in the South Atlantic is determined by NOAA Fisheries each year, based on estimated harvest from the previous year. If fishing is allowed, the opening dates of both the recreational fishery and commercial fishery currently begin in July. The Council is considering options for modifying the current parameters in place, including the season start dates as well as days of the week when red snapper harvest is allowed to allow more flexibility for the season and reduce the number of fish that must be released.
Regulatory Amendment 33 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan would address these modifications and includes action to remove the minimum number of days for allowing a red snapper season (currently 3 days or more), modify the start date of the recreational red snapper season, revise the days of the week harvest would be allowed, and modify the start date of the red snapper commercial fishery. Public hearings via webinar and listening stations will be scheduled for August and the Council will review public comments during its September 16-20, 2019 meeting in Charleston, SC. The public hearing schedule will be publicized as soon as it becomes available.
The Council also continued to work on management measures for dolphin fish and wahoo through Amendment 10 to the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan. The amendment currently includes actions to revise annual catch limits, sector allocations, and accountability measures, and options to reduce the vessel limit for dolphin. The amendment would also remove operator card requirements, addresses retention and gear training requirements for commercial vessels and options for allowing for-hire vessels north of the North Carolina/Virginia border to fillet dolphin with skin intact under the condition that two fillets equal one fish. Dolphin and wahoo are managed in federal waters along the Atlantic coast by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in cooperation with the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils. There is no minimum size limit for dolphin in federal waters off of North Carolina northward. The Council’s Dolphin Wahoo Advisory Panel had requested the Council consider allowing the sale of bag limit dolphin by dual-federally permitted (charter and commercial) vessels. After considering public comment and input received during this week’s public hearing, and much discussion, the Council decided to remove the action as part of Amendment 10. The Council will continue to discuss the amendment in September.
At the request of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and after considering public scoping comments, the South Atlantic Council will move forward to develop an amendment to designate bullet and frigate mackerel as ecosystem component species within the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan and evaluate appropriate regulatory actions. The designation, widely supported during the scoping process, would acknowledge the important role the two species play as forage fish for dolphin and wahoo.
The next meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is scheduled for September 16-20, 2019 at the Town and Country Inn in Charleston, SC. Additional information for this week’s meeting, including final committee reports, an interactive story map, and meeting report is available from the Council’s website at: http://safmc.net/safmc-meetings/council-meetings/.