SOUTH CAROLINA

Proposed Legislation Would Provide Year-round Season, Regulations for Red Snapper Caught in South Carolina State Waters

Columbia, S.C. – In response to mounting frustrations over federal management of red snapper in the South Atlantic, South Carolina State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and Chip Campsen have introduced legislation that would establish regulations for red snapper caught in South Carolina waters from 0 to 3 miles offshore. If adopted, the bill would set a 365-day season in state waters, a limit of two red snapper per person per day and a minimum size of 20 inches total length. These regulations mimic those governing red snapper harvest in Georgia and Florida state waters. If passed, three of the four states in the region would now recognize red snapper management measures within their state waters.

“Statistically, and traditionally, we may not catch many red snapper in South Carolina state waters,” said Scott Whitaker, executive director for the South Carolina Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA SC). “But if the current situation is the best that can be done after more than a decade of effort then it may be time to re-evaluate how we manage this fishery. Taken in conjunction with what other South Atlantic states have implemented, we think this bill permits the state to act within its purview and sets the stage to explore other options.”

Red snapper has been a lightning rod in fisheries management since 2008, when federal managers conducted the first modern stock assessment on the species in the South Atlantic and discovered that the stock was so overfished that consideration was given to closing all bottom fishing in a massive area of the South Atlantic to avoid red snapper mortality. Red snapper are a popular bottom dwelling fish that are subject to barotrauma when brought up suddenly from depth. Due to federal regulations permitting little to no effort by anglers for years, the population has swung so much in the other direction that anglers now report it is increasingly difficult to catch anything else. Compounding the issue, as the population expands anglers are encountering them in greater frequency and in areas not traditionally found and are forced to release them when the season is closed, some not surviving. Even if fishing for another species, red snapper “bycatch mortality” is considered so significant that federal managers say it prevents anything but a severely limited season for anglers to legally keep a red snapper.

“First, we had to stop fishing for red snapper because the population was so severely depleted. Now, after over a decade of participating in draconian recovery measures, we cannot fish for them because they are too numerous and we are killing too many as bycatch,” said Whitaker. “There has to be some equilibrium, fisheries management shouldn’t be feast or famine.”

Additional conservation regulations requiring commercial and recreational anglers to have venting tools or descending devices on board to successfully release deep-dwelling fish have been recently implemented to help address bycatch mortality. The use of such gear has not yet had a noticeable impact in calculations of bycatch mortality by NOAA Fisheries.’ Despite the limited access, even closures, and new gear requirements, instead of translating into reasonable measures to harvest the popular species, federal managers’ report the one- and two-day seasons of recent years may be here to stay.

“Anglers are recognized as some of the first conservationist. There is no question we have been and continue to be energetic participants in taking the difficult steps needed to get the species back on the right path and we have been extraordinarily patient as this fishery has recovered,” said Whitaker. “But there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the management tunnel regarding expanding access to red snapper. NOAA Fisheries is saying this is as good as it is ever going to get, and that simply should not be the case.”

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