March 24, 2008

Council to decide who can sell snapper-grouper species


The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council won’t decide until June whether to prohibit the sale of snapper-grouper species caught under recreational fishing harvest limits.

The council was expected to take action on snapper-grouper bag limit sales during its March 3-7 meeting in Jekyll Island, Ga.  The council supports a prohibition on bag limit sales that would allow only boats with commercial federal permits to sell snapper-grouper.

“The council’s official position hasn’t changed,” said Brian Cheuvront, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) representative on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC).

He said the delay in addressing the issue would allow compilation of information on bag limit sales in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, similar to an analysis already completed in North Carolina.

Under current rules, fishermen don’t need a commercial snapper-grouper federal permit in order to sell species such as snowy grouper, golden tilefish, or vermilion snapper.  

As long as a fisherman has a state commercial fishing license, he can catch and sell the recreational fishing harvest limit, usually referred to as the bag limit.  In North Carolina, standard commercial fishing licenses can be purchased for anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 from private individuals.

The stickler is that all fish sold are counted against the commercial harvest quota, even if the seller is a recreational fisherman interested in picking up a few dollars to help offset fuel costs.

And once the commercial quota is harvested, the commercial fishery is closed.

With smaller commercial quotas in place for species such as snowy grouper and black sea bass and with more restrictive quotas on the way for species like gag grouper and vermilion snapper, the prospect for shorter and shorter commercial fishing seasons is high.

Restricting the sale of snapper-grouper to fishermen with federal commercial permits could extend those shortened seasons.

A DMF analysis of sales in North Carolina showed that an average of about 609,000 pounds of snapper-grouper, valued at $1.05 million, was sold in the state by fishermen without federal permits in each year from 2000 through 2006.

The trend in recent years has followed the general decline in commercial fishing, but Cheuvront said the amount was still substantial, especially in light of more restrictive quotas.  

Landings by fishermen without federal permits in North Carolina range from less than 10 percent to more than 40 percent of the total commercial catch for various species in the snapper-grouper complex.

Cheuvront said that fishermen who sell bag-limit numbers of snapper-grouper include not only recreational fishermen, but also some commercial fishermen without federal permits, particularly in the southern coastal region of the state.

“Both groups have standard commercial fishing licenses, and there’s no way to separate out the true commercial fishermen from recreational fishermen,” he explained.  

Cheuvront said DMF supports eliminating bag-limit sales not only for snapper-groupers but also for other species with federal permits and harvest quotas.

“We haven’t changed our position and we don’t expect to,” he said, confirming that Gov. Mike Easley’s office had contacted DMF after receiving numerous complaints about the proposed prohibition on bag limit sales.

“There wasn’t any arm-twisting going on.  The Governor’s office understood the situation after we explained our position,” he said.   

The South Atlantic council expects to take up bag-limit sales again when it meets in Orlando, Fla., in June. 

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