Council Requests Emergency Actions to Assist with COVID-19 Impacts

[Newsletter: Summer 2020]


A parking lot sits vacant of charter fishing customers earlier this spring. Photo: Captain Andy Piland, Good Times Sportfishing, Hatteras, NC

The impacts of COVID-19 continue to be felt around the world as the pandemic unfolds. Closer to home, the Council focused on the impacts to constituents during the June 2020 meeting. For the first time, the week-long Council meeting was held via webinar due to concerns about the coronavirus. Council members reviewed input from advisory panel members along with public comments and reports from state marine resource agencies about the impacts of COVID-19 on fisheries and fishing communities. It was obvious that negative impacts on businesses were far reaching. For-hire captains tied their boats to the docks as shelter in place orders were issued, commercial fishermen scrambled to find new markets when restaurants suddenly closed their doors,  private recreational fishing impacts fluctuated, with initial access limitations reducing effort in some areas while others experienced a jump in activity as anglers took to the water for respite and social distancing. The Spring 2020 issue of the South Atlantic Update newsletter focused on COVID-19 impacts.

In June, Council members discussed at length possible options to help fishermen and fishing-related businesses impacted by COVID-19. Many public comments focused on allowing more access to the Red Snapper fishery, requesting the Council consider emergency action to do so. However, the Council acknowledged that the Snapper Grouper FMP requires NOAA Fisheries to set a recreational season that allows full harvest of the available catch.  After much discussion, the Council agreed to send a letter to the Secretary of Commerce addressing Red Snapper concerns and effects of the pandemic.

Requests for Emergency Action – King Mackerel and Vermilion Snapper

Council members reviewed an options paper for management measures that could be implemented within the next few months through emergency action to help reduce the negative social and economic impacts brought on by the pandemic. Discussions included the need to address the for-hire industry, hit particularly hard with shelter-in-place orders and lack of tourism. For example, Dare County, North Carolina, which encompasses portions of the Outer Banks, an area famous for its fishing opportunities, was completely closed to non-residents for April and May 2020. Preliminary data from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) indicate the number of charter trips in the South Atlantic region in 2020 was down by nearly 90% when compared to the two previous years.

The Council agreed in June to request NOAA Fisheries take emergency action to temporarily increase the Atlantic King Mackerel possession limit to 4 per person coastwide (from the NY/CT/RI line to the Miami-Dade/Monroe county line, Florida). During discussions the Council noted that increasing the bag limit may have positive economic and social effects if it provides an incentive for anglers to take more fishing trips and serves as a selling point for the for-hire industry, possibly increasing trips and boosting sales of bait, tackle, ice, and fuel. The Council’s Mackerel Cobia Advisory Panel had supported such increases prior to the pandemic.

Since 2011, the recreational landings of Atlantic King Mackerel have averaged less than 40% of the recreational ACL and analyses show the increased bag limit would not likely exceed the ACL. A recently completed update to the Atlantic King Mackerel stock assessment indicates the stock is not overfished or undergoing overfishing, and harvest above current rates would be sustainable.

The Council also agreed to request emergency action to increase the Vermilion Snapper commercial trip limit from 1,000 pounds to 1,500 pounds (gutted weight) for 180 days from the time the rule is implemented. Commercial fishing activity has also been negatively impacted by COVID-19 with loss of markets and responses to the pandemic including travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. As a result, the commercial Vermilion Snapper fishery isn’t likely to fully harvest its ACL this year under the current trip limit.

Vermilion Snapper are an important component of the Snapper Grouper fishery and prior management measures used to help keep the fishery open throughout the year, include reductions in trip limits, in-season trip limit reductions, and split seasons (January–June and July–December). Despite some reopening of businesses, the landings report reviewed by the Council in June indicated that only 51% of the ACL for the first season had been landed, compared to the same time last year when landings were at 85% of the ACL. If the unused ACL from the first season is rolled over to the second season without an increase in the trip limit, it is likely the surplus would not be utilized. As part of the emergency action request, the Council intends to evaluate fishery conditions in December 2020 to determine whether the change should be extended or terminated at an earlier date. The stock is not overfished or undergoing overfishing.

The Council sent letters to NOAA Fisheries on June 30, 2020, requesting emergency actions for both Atlantic King Mackerel and Vermilion Snapper with an expectation that the measures can be implemented before the end of 2020. The Council will receive an update on the requests during it September 14-18, 2020, meeting. Council members will also consider a further emergency request to allow the carry-over of unused 2020 catch into the 2021 fishing year. The Council continues to look at ways to help address negative impacts to fisheries and fishing communities and welcomes public comment. An online public comment form for the September Council meeting will be posted at: at least two weeks prior to the meeting.

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