ATLANTIC BEACH — Local watermen want to be able to put their black sea bass pots back in the water during the winter.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of the interstate fishery management bodies with jurisdiction in the federal waters off North Carolina, held a hearing and scoping meeting for the public Wednesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. It was about several proposed amendments to fishery management plans. One of these is Amendment 16 to the Snapper-Grouper FMP for the South Atlantic region, which includes North Carolina.
This amendment, which was up for public scoping, includes options to reduce or eliminate the current Nov. 1 – April 30 black sea bass pot prohibition, which was adopted Oct. 23, 2013.
The prohibition was adopted to remove the pots from the waters to avoid entanglements during the calving season for endangered right whales, which are frequently seen off the coast of North Carolina.
Dr. Michelle Duval, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries representative on the SAFMC, and Jack Cox, another representative and owner of Blue Ocean Market in Morehead City, took the public’s comments at the hearing.
Dr. Duval said during a presentation on the proposed amendments that there has been no recorded interaction between right whales and black sea bass pots.
“There’s no evidence this kind of closure is warranted,” she said.
About 12 people gave their thoughts and recommendations to the council. Several of them said the council should let fishermen use pots during the winter again.
Tom Burgess, a commercial fisherman from Sneads Ferry, who also sits on the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission’s Habitat and Water Quality Advisory Committee, said taking action on the prohibition shouldn’t be forestalled.
“November through April is the calving season, but I think that 90 percent of the calves are born in a two-month period: January and February. I think November through April is far too long,” he said.
Sandra Gaskill, of Harkers Island, said her husband, commercial fishermen Elbert Gaskill, has been using black sea bass pots for 45 years. She said he’s always brought them in after the day’s fishing, even before it became a requirement, and has never entangled a whale.
“Fishermen are out with their pots all day. They can see a whale coming. I know everyone wants to protect the whales; so do I. But not to the point it puts my husband out of the water. These winter months are really needed by the commercial fishermen. This is about making a living. I say open it up; let the fishermen fish,” Ms. Gaskill said.
Several of the fishermen at the meeting talked about how black sea bass are one of the few species that help sustain them during the winter. Chris McCaffity, a commercial fisherman from Morehead City, said he’d lost his permit to use black sea bass pots because of a lack of use.
“I hadn’t used them before, but I wanted to have them ready. That (black sea bass pot fishing) is something we can do close to shore in safer conditions (during the winter). Sometimes I think these rules are just arbitrary,” he said.
Mr. McCaffity suggested making pot closures only apply to critical habitat for the right whales, which is another management option in Amendment 16 that the council’s Snapper-Grouper Advisory Committee recommends. According to the amendment, the currently designated critical habitat area is a stretch of waters that begins at 28 degrees N latitude on the coast of Florida and extends partway up into the waters off Georgia.
Sonny Davis, a charter boat captain with the Capt. Stacy charter service of Atlantic Beach, said his company had two boats permitted for black sea bass pot fishing.
“We bass fished in the winter time. We only used 12-18 pots per boat. But a couple years ago, they came up with the regulation that, if you don’t catch enough fish, you lose your pots. That, to me, is working backward. They talk about protecting the fishery, then take my permits away for not using them enough,” he said.
Ron McPherson, an Atlantic Beach recreational fisherman, said it seemed unfair to him to require commercial fishermen to take their pots out of the water during the winter.
“It’s a very clean fishery. It’s important we open it up so they can go out and fish,” he said.
Other options proposed in Amendment 16 include:
• Status quo.
• Reducing the winter closure from Nov. 1 to April 30 to Nov. 15 to April 15.
• Applying the winter closure only to waters 25 meters (82 feet) deep or less from 29 degrees N latitude to Cape Lookout and in waters 35 meters (about 115 feet) deep or less north of Cape Lookout under SAFMC jurisdiction.
• Apply the winter closure to waters inshore of specific points listed in the amendment, running north from 29 degrees N latitude to Cape Hatteras.
• Apply the winter closure to waters 82 feet deep or less from 28 degrees 21.5 degrees N latitude to Savannah, Ga., then in waters from the Ga./S.C. border to Cape Hatteras, apply the closure to waters under SAFMC management that are 30 meters deep (about 98 feet) or less.
The SAFMC will review scoping comments for Amendment 16 and choose its preferred management measures in March. Public hearings will be held in August, with final approval of the amendment scheduled for September or December.
While Wednesday was the only North Carolina scoping meeting scheduled for this amendment, written comments are still being accepted until 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3. Written comments may be sent to Bob Mahood, Executive Director, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, 4055 Faber Place Drive, Suite 201, North Charleston, S.C. 29405. They may also be emailed to SGRegAmend16Comments@safmc.net.
For more information on Amendment 16, interested parties may visit the website www.safmc.net.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.