It may be short and confusing, but the “breaking news” is that the Atlantic red snapper fishery may be opened for a number of three-day weekends, starting in a month or two.

The likely mini-opening came out in meetings of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Many anglers reacted that while an opening is welcome, the plan being discussed falls far short of a year-around fishery that the community deserves. The long federally imposed closure, based on extremely controversial data, has caused many millions of socio-economic losses. (See June FS Openers column.)

Click for more from the Council meetings.

Report from Federal Council Meetings

During the Snapper-Grouper committee meetings of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in Orlando, several plans were approved tentatively. The SAFMC oversees fishing regulations in federal waters of the Atlantic off North Carolina to Florida (starting 3 nautical miles off Florida). Keep in mind, however, that the actions must be approved by the 13 voting members of the full council and even then they’re subject to review due to NOAA approval authority.

Atlantic red snapper, which have been closed to all fishing for 2 1/2 years despite growing evidence that the species is healthy, approved the following emergency motion: “Initiate an emergency rule to provide for the recreational allocation for red snapper to be landed on three-day weekends, the number of which would be determined by the National Marine Fishery Service. The commercial portion of the allocation would be landed under a 100-pound gutted-weight trip limit.”

This was further clarified by the passing of a defining: “ACL (Annual Catch Limit) for red snapper would be set at 13,067 fish; weekends would consist of Friday, Saturday and Sunday; NMFS would strive to open the season as soon as possible; NMFS would be able to modify the opening dates subject to weather conditions; recreational bag limit would be one per person per day with no size limit; the commercial fishing would be open in seven-day mini-season increments subject to the remaining quota; there would be no size limit for the commercial sector.”

According to Roy Crabtree, the Southeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the emergency rule should go into effect by late August or early September. The emergency ruling extends to six months or until the 13,067 red snapper have been caught and can be renewed based on data gathered in the interim.

Separate from the emergency rule opening, the S/G committee voted in favor of a permanent plan to allow fishing for red snapper on an ongoing basis through a tag system to be administered by NMFS. The tag would be subject to commercial/recreational allocation and would be distributed through a lottery system.

If the latter motion is adopted as an amendment to the S/G regulations, it would supplant the emergency rule. Many factors need to be considered, such as discouraging “culling” of fish that can result in smaller red snapper discarded when larger ones are caught, monitoring requirements, setting up a fair lottery, if the tag is transferable, etc. The ACL of 13,067 was determined by estimasting dead discards between the 2010-11 totals and projections for 2012. Many of those present felt that that estimated catch total would be reached quickly and any emergency season could be very short.

A presentation was made to the S/G committee to add 12 new Marine Protected Areas (no-fishing zones) to the existing eight MPAs already in existence in the South Atlantic for the purpose of protecting speckled hind and warsaw grouper in deeper waters. A motion was passed to obtain alternatives to the 12 new zones and a “reconfiguration” for the present eight zones. The committee acknowledged that they have no useful data from its science committee about the status of speckled hind and warsaw grouper.

Florida’s FWC Chair Kathy Barco, sitting in on the SAFMC committee meeting, asked what goals or science models were in place regarding expectations from the zones. The blunt response from S/G Committee Chair Mac Currin was that there is no science or any goals. Furthermore, the impact on other species in the proposed zones is unknown along with no answers concerning the socio-economic impact to anglers if barred to catch species other than speckled hind and warsaw grouper in the zones.

One observer remarked, “So now we’re going to site zones on the basis that they might do some good? An unbelievably reckless precedent.” Another joked that reconfiguration is fed speak for increasing the size of present no-fishing zones. Several of the S/G committee members agreed that it would be wise to first find out if the existing zones are at all effective before clamoring for more.

Again, keep in mind that all actions on a Council level are subject to review by the NMFS (basically meaning Crabtree).

–Doug Kelly/FS staff

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