The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved proposed management measures affecting fisheries for Dolphin and Wahoo in federal waters along the Atlantic coast during its meeting last week. Measures include modifying the recreational vessel trip limit for Dolphin from 60 fish to 54 fish per vessel per trip while maintaining the 10 fish per person daily bag limit. The measures are being proposed through Amendment 10 to the Dolphin Wahoo Fishery Management Plan for the Atlantic. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the new measures could be implemented in 2022.
The proposed reduction in the daily trip limit was reached after much discussion by the Council in an effort to address concerns expressed by fishermen, primarily from South Florida and the Florida Keys, about declines in the size and number of Dolphin landed in recent years. In contrast, many fishermen involved in the for-hire fishery off the coast of North Carolina opposed reductions to the current 60 fish vessel limit, citing negative economic impacts to the charter industry and noting limited changes to the numbers and sizes of Dolphin fish observed in their area over the past few years. A reduction of 48 Dolphin per vessel had been considered earlier as a preferred measure. Options to apply reductions in specific areas were also considered but ruled out. For example, an option to reduce recreational vessel limits for Dolphin for the east coast of Florida resulted in nominal reductions in harvest (<1%) given that more than 90% of trips harvested less than 10 fish per vessel per trip.
Council Chair Mel Bell noted the difficulty in managing the Dolphin fishery along the Atlantic coast. “Dolphin is a highly migratory species by nature that is harvested internationally. We don’t have a stock assessment for Dolphin or Wahoo. We’re missing the actual data. We’ve heard so many differences between what is being observed between Florida and North Carolina, private anglers and for-hire,” said Bell. “This attempt to compromise is difficult.” He noted the Council will continue to monitor the fishery and can take further action in the future.
Amendment 10 includes actions to update Annual Catch Limits (ACL) for both Dolphin and Wahoo largely based on updated recreational landings and modify allocations between recreational and commercial sectors. The recreational sector allocation for Dolphin would increase from 96.07% to 97.55% of the total ACL.
The amendment would also revise recreational accountability measures to allow for temporary reductions in bag limits, vessel limits, and the season should the sector ACL be projected to be met for Dolphin and temporarily reduce the bag limit, length of the season, or implement a vessel limit for Wahoo to prevent the sector ACL from being exceeded (post season). In addition, the amendment would remove the requirement for an Operator Card for for-hire and commercial federal Dolphin Wahoo permit holders and allow possession of limited quantities of Dolphin or Wahoo onboard commercial vessels with trap, pot or buoy gear on board.
The Council removed a proposed measure to reduce the recreational bag limit for Wahoo after considering recommendations from its advisory panels, public comment and updated data analyses. The current limit is 2 Wahoo per person per day. Council members had considered the reduction to address concerns that the recreational ACL could be met and result in a closure of the fishery, including the for-hire sector, in late fall. The Council agreed to address additional management measures in its future work plan.
During the meeting week the Council received stock assessment presentations and fishery overviews for Gag grouper, golden Tilefish and Red Snapper. The stock assessment for Gag found the stock is overfished and undergoing overfishing. The Council has begun developing an amendment to incorporate fishing level recommendations from its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) and address management needs. Fishing level recommendations will also be incorporated into an amendment to update fishing levels for Tilefish. The stock is not considered overfished or undergoing overfishing, but the SSC cautioned about the high level of uncertainty in the assessment.
The Council discussed the results of a recent stock assessment for Red Snapper. The assessment shows that abundance of Red Snapper is at an all-time high, reflecting what fishermen are seeing on the water. The stock remains listed as overfished and undergoing overfishing. Overfishing is primarily due to the high number of Red Snapper that are released by fishermen year-round and don’t survive. Council members recognize that these issues are an effect of regulations and the high number of interactions expected when a stock is abundant and the species is aggressive and desirable.
The stock remains overfished, as expected, because the population is early in its recovery period and it will take time to rebuild the age structure. For example, the abundance of fish age 3 and older has recovered to a greater extent than the abundance of fish age 10 and older. Red Snapper can live to be over 50 years old. The good news is that stock rebuilding is on track and consistent with the Council’s rebuilding plan. Recovering the entire stock, not just the youngest ages, is important to ensuring stable fisheries over the long term.
The Council’s SSC will meet later this summer to provide fishing level recommendations for Red Snapper after reviewing alternative recruitment scenarios and considering the use of descending devices and other best practices in the fishery. The Council will develop an amendment to address the SSC recommendations and agreed to work to address short-term and long-term measures to help meet Red Snapper management challenges. Additional information, including the stock assessment and a video presentation outlining the issues affecting the recovery of the Red Snapper stock is available from the Meeting Story Map.
Council members also reviewed public comment on a proposed Rock Shrimp Fishery Access area within the Oculina Bank Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern, an area off the east coast of Florida where deepwater Oculina coral is found. Council members heard concerns about the impacts of trawling near the coral areas and also acknowledged the historic trawling grounds and the work and cooperation from its Deepwater Shrimp Advisory Panel members in establishing the original protected area. The Council is scheduled to address Coral Amendment 10 again during its September meeting.
The next meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is scheduled for September 13-17, 2021, in Charleston, SC.