Op-Ed: No-fishing zones can’t be justified, hurt coastal economy

By Tom Swatzel

Recreational and commercial fishermen and coastal business should be very concerned about an effort by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to create more no-fishing zones off North and South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida in a misguided reaction to radical environmental groups that are pushing for extraordinary and unjustifiable protections for two deep-water grouper species.

At its meeting next week in Charleston, the SAFMC will consider approving up to 18 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), encompassing nearly 1,350 square miles of ocean, that were recommended by the council’s MPA Workgroup as no-fishing zones for bottom fishing and even trolling in an effort to reduce the possible bycatch of speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

In 1994, commercial sales of speckled hind and warsaw grouper were prohibited and the recreational bag limit for each species was reduced to one, and in 2010 the fisheries were closed as a precautionary measure.

The SAFMC plunges forward with these MPAs despite the contrary advice of its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), which said in an April 2012 report: “There isn’t enough scientific backing to say [area] closures will do what managers need them to do. … Currently, there is no analysis that shows any conservation benefits of [area] closures to these species.

Even NOAA Southeastern Regional Fisheries Administrator Roy Crabtree, a member of the SAFMC, said at a March 2012 SAFMC meeting: “We don’t really right now know really what the statuses of these stocks are, and it’s unclear to us exactly what needs to be done to protect them.”

The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Development Foundation Observer Project “concluded the bycatch level of speckled hind/warsaw grouper was too low to generate an estimate of bycatch for the South Atlantic commercial snapper grouper fishery.” So excessive bycatch does not appear to be an issue.

With the advent of required annual catch limits on all South Atlantic snapper-grouper species, paired with seasonal closures on some species, both commercial and recreational fishermen are landing a lot less fish and fishing a lot less days than in past years. An analysis needs to be done of the impacts of these cumulative regulations on the stock status of speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

“Given all of the current regulations that affect other snapper grouper species, it is possible overfishing for speckled hind and Warsaw grouper is no longer occurring,” the SSC said in its April 2012 report.

Additionally, there are eight existing deep-water MPAs in the South Atlantic, totaling about 530 square miles, that were approved in 2009, in which all bottom fishing is prohibited to protect deep-water snapper-grouper species, particularly speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

In the four years these MPAs have existed, no systematic monitoring has occurred to evaluate their effectiveness. In fact the SAFMC voted in 2006 to remove an evaluation plan from that MPA plan because the council did not want to be held accountable for its execution or funding.

These existing MPAs may be doing an adequate job of enhancing speckled hind and warsaw grouper populations, but until there is some systematic monitoring, there can be no way to quantify the results.

It’s clear the SAFMC needs to listen to own scientific advisors and work to ensure that adequate monitoring and data collection is done so the stock status of these species is better defined before hurting recreational and commercial fishermen and the coastal economy of the Southeastern states with onerous no-fishing zones that have no basis in fact.

Tom Swatzel, a consultant and fisherman from Murrells Inlet, is a former member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

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