National Fisherman

Bottoming out

Snapper and grouper fishermen are staring into the abyss of a potential 35-year fishery closure

By Hoyt Childers

Skipper Brian Lloyd stood by his 35-foot reef boat, Charlotte Marie, at Safe Harbor Seafood in Mayport, Fla., pondered the scant options remaining if the snapper-grouper fishery closes, and voiced what troubles the sleep of many South Atlantic fishermen.

"I'm trying to support my family," he said. "They have to allow us to do something."

Nothing is certain until Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke approves it, but the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Amendment 17A could close the entire South Atlantic EEZ to red snapper fishing as well as a portion of the EEZ — as much as 26,600 square miles — to fishing for all snapper and grouper species, for up to 35 years.

Amendment 17B will include additional restrictions on nine other species of snapper and grouper that are classified as overfished.

By the council's analysis, net revenues for commercial fishermen in hardest hit Georgia and northeast Florida could plunge 71 percent.

It would be the end of bottomfishing, said Gerald Pack, owner of Safe Harbor Seafood. Besides the ruinous cost, the heritage link — the capacity of fishermen to pass knowledge and skills to their children — would be broken.

"If they shut it down for 35 years, who's going to be left to teach them?" he asked.

Depending on how the council process unfolds, the final version of Amendment 17A could be in front of the commerce secretary in March, or perhaps not before May. In any case, fishermen are already under the yoke: On Dec. 3 (the day the White House hosted a "jobs forum") NMFS implemented an interim 180-day red snapper fishing ban, effective Jan. 4.

In 2008, snapper-grouper provided about $14 million or approximately 24 percent of all South Atlantic finfish landings, based on the NMFS database.

For the sport and charter sectors, the council estimates a region-wide direct annual loss of $19.5 million.

Chuck Adams, a Florida Sea Grant economist and marine economics professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, reckons effects would be long term and reach well beyond the dock.

"The cumulative losses over an extended long-term recovery period are obviously daunting... especially for coastal communities already reeling from an economic slowdown that has impacted coastal tourism and the demand for locally produced seafood products," he said via e-mail.

"An 11 percent loss in revenue by a grouper boat may be just enough to push it over the financial edge during these volatile times. How many commercial vessels would be forced to tie up? What would be the impact on local seafood processors and markets as throughput is reduced and local markets lost?...

"Will the costs (both business and social) of imposing such stringent stock recovery strategies be offset by the benefits associated with the recovery of the red snapper stocks? National Standards 7 and 8 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act are there to ensure such questions are asked."

U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), reflecting on a persistent recession that has seen markets contract and unemployment hit its highest level since 1983, said a shutdown "couldn't come at a worse time. It would have a devastating effect."

Mica, along with U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and 13 other House members, sponsored H.R. 3307 to stop the interim rule.

McIntyre said during a telephone interview that "the 180-day closure of the red snapper fishery is of great concern." He said he supports protection of marine resources, but the cost to communities in the long-term Amendment 17A closures would be too severe, as well.

"The fishing industry is the backbone of many of our coastal towns in North Carolina," he said. "It provides good jobs and a steady source of income for hundreds of fishermen in my district, and we have got to do everything we can to stop this attack on their livelihoods."

The council was scheduled to consider but not finalize Amendment 17A during its Dec. 6-11 meeting in Atlantic Beach, N.C.

As that meeting began, the council had chosen a preferred red snapper rebuilding period — 15 to 35 years — but not a closed area. (Still unclear is when some fishing might be allowed as assessments show stocks beginning to recover.)

The smallest closure would ban snapper and grouper fishing in 8,100 square miles of ocean from the South Carolina-Georgia state line south to Melbourne, Fla., between water depths of 98 and 240 feet, and ban red snapper fishing throughout the EEZ.

The largest would ban snapper and grouper fishing in 26,600 square miles of ocean stretching from McClellanville, S.C., to Melbourne, and ban red snapper fishing in the EEZ.

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