It has been seven years since expansion of the northern end of the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) was approved by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Designed to provide additional protection for the rare, slow growing, deepwater Oculina coral found off the central east coast of Florida, the expansion also included historic fishing grounds for the economically important rock shrimp fishery, shutting off access along the eastern boundary. The initial Oculina Coral HAPC, established in 1984, was the first deepwater coral protected area in the U. S., and its boundaries were developed in cooperation with the rock shrimp industry. Vessel Monitoring Systems have been in place since 2003 for the fishery. Following expansion of the Coral HAPC in 2014, the Council assured rock shrimp fishermen that the area would be reviewed to determine if the historic trawling areas could be reopened. During its quarterly meeting this week, members of the Council voted to approve Coral Amendment 10 to establish the rock shrimp fishery access area. The amendment must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce before the measures are implemented.
The decision to reopen the fishery access area, a narrow strip along the eastern edge of the Coral HAPC measuring approximately 22-square miles, was not without controversy. Over the years, the Oculina Bank has suffered extensive habitat damage due to mobile fishing gear (trawls and dredges) and anchoring. Council members considered recommendations from its advisory panels and received public comment both in support of and against the rock shrimp fishery access area.
Letters in support of the fishery access area included those from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, fishing industry leaders, and a former Council member. Coral biologists, scientists, and environmental groups were among those who expressed concerns that reopening the trawling area could damage existing coral habitat, noting the negative impacts of sediment from trawling activities. “We’ve heard from both sides on this issue and sincerely appreciate all of the letters and public comment received,” said Council Chair, Mel Bell. “After exploring options, including additional mapping and bottom surveys, we felt it important to move forward with this amendment.” If approved by the Secretary, the new regulations would become effective in 2022.
Discussion of Red Snapper management continued to focus on the challenge of dealing with the increasing number of fish that are released throughout the year as the stock continues to rebuild, and the estimated number of released fish that don’t survive. In June 2021, the Council received the results of the most recent stock assessment for Red Snapper, which indicated that the stock is not yet rebuilt and experiencing overfishing. According to the stock assessment, released fish account for 90% of the fishing mortality for Red Snapper in the South Atlantic.
After receiving a report from its Scientific and Statistical Committee at this week’s meeting, the Council agreed to immediately look at actions to help reduce the number Red Snapper killed by discarding. Measures to be considered include gear modifications (single hook rigs, larger hooks, leader modifications, natural bait prohibition), consideration of a slot limit, increased outreach on best fishing practices, and data collection through the Council’s Citizen Science Project, SAFMC Release. The Council also requested a Research Track stock assessment be conducted for Red Snapper at the next available opportunity. Council members acknowledged the need to consider the multi-species snapper grouper fishery as a whole and will form a workgroup to lead a Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE) approach to reduce discards and increase landed yield across the entire snapper grouper fishery.
As required, the Council will also begin an amendment to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan to revise management parameters for Red Snapper based on the latest stock assessment and recommendations from its Scientific and Statistical Committee. The amendment will incorporate the results of the MSE project and consider additional actions for the snapper grouper fishery to address widespread fishery issues such as discard losses. The Council will receive input from its Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel and continue work during its December 2021 meeting.
The Council accepted public hearing comment on proposed measures for Red Porgry during its meeting. Despite being under a rebuilding plan to rebuild the stock by 2017, recruitment continues to be low and the stock remains overfished and undergoing overfishing. Amendment 50 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan would establish a new rebuilding plan based on the latest stock assessment and reduce harvest for both commercial and recreational sectors. Under the Council’s preferred alternatives, the amendment would reduce commercial trip limits during the annual split season, reducing Season 1 (Jan-June) from 60 fish to 15 per trip and Season 2 (July-Dec) from 120 fish to 15 per trip. The current recreational bag limit of 3 fish per person per day or per trip, whichever is more restrictive, would be reduced to 1 fish. An annual recreational season of May-June would also be established for Red Porgy and recreational accountability measures modified to help ensure the new recreational catch limit is not exceeded.
There was good news for the King Mackerel fishery, with the latest stock assessment allowing an increase in catch levels. Coastal Migratory Pelagics Amendment 34 includes measures to Increase the recreational bag limit for King Mackerel from 2 to 3 fish off East Florida and reductions in minimum size limits. Coastal Migratory Pelagics (King Mackerel, Spanish Mackerel and Cobia) are managed jointly with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The Council approved the amendment for public hearings on the proposed measures. The amendment will be reviewed by the Gulf Council in October where they will select preferred alternatives and consider approval for public hearings.
The Council also approved Coastal Migratory Pelagic Amendment 32 for public hearings. The amendment addresses measures for Cobia off the east coast of Florida as part of the Gulf of Mexico Cobia management group. The intent is to hold public hearings later this year with listening stations along the east coast of Florida from Key West to Jacksonville.
The Council re-elected Mel Bell as its Chair and Dr. Carolyn Belcher as the new Vice-Chair.