In Weird Al Yankovic’s cult ’80s film “UHF,” contestants play for their weight in fish on a game show called, “Wheel of Fish.” A woman, the returning champion, gets the first spin at the wheel that, yes, sports a number of fish tied to it at regular intervals. Then the wheel stops.
“Ah, a red snapper,” says the show’s host, a character played by Gedde Watanabe. “Mmm — very tasty.”
They are tasty, which created a problem the closed red snapper season off the Southeast United States was supposed to solve — rebuilding the fish’s population so as to allow both commercial and recreational fishing for red snapper once again.
At the Tuesday morning meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Snapper Grouper Committee meeting, there appeared to be some progress in moving toward reopening red snapper fishing in federal waters off Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.
Zack Bowen, a charter fisherman from Savannah, pushed the need for movement, saying, “The recreational anglers are mad as hell,” charter operations are starving for business and there needed to be something done soon to address opening red snapper fishing.
“It’s not good, and we need to correct it as fast as we possibly can,” Bowen said.
That received backing from another member of the council, who said that while other work occurs on other facets of the issue, keeping waters closed was unacceptable.
National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree later noted that the red snapper population has been rebuilding and said it was in its best shape in 40 years. However, the data does not lead to certain conclusions.
In a letter Crabtree sent to SAFMC Chairwoman Michelle Duval last week, he states, “The (SAFMC’s) Scientific and Statistical Committee reviewed the assessment and determined the assessment is based of the best scientific information available. However, the SSC noted there is considerable uncertainty in the exploitation status, and thus, the degree of overfishing is highly uncertain.
“The uncertainty in exploitation status inhibits the council’s ability to set an acceptable biological catch that can be effectively monitored.”
Meanwhile, Duval mentioned that reducing the amount of discards was necessary to reopening red snapper fishing, while council members talked about the way to do that, including different types of apparatuses used while harvesting other types of fish in the same areas.
In some amount of compromise between these discussions, the committee voted to ax one method of action — Action 6 regarding Snapper Grouper Amendment 43 — that would have closed all potential fishing areas to reduce discards.
Regardless, at the moment there appears to be a disconnect between the SAFMC and fishermen. Chip Collier, SAFMC fishery biologist, presented comments made on Amendment 43 through around 10 public meetings, and people who attended “commented that they did not believe the catch and discard estimates and discard mortality values,” and said “red snapper population was so large that they were impacting other populations.” Other fishermen said they thought there was a conspiracy to keep the fishery closed.
Collier said opinions given at one meeting generally held true regarding the others.
There were concerns expressed in those meetings and in public comments that a group of a few boat owners under the South Atlantic Commercial Fishing Collaborative would use a system some believe was used to exploit the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery to the detriment to anyone else who wanted to harvest the fish.
The SACFC made an application for exempted fishing permits that would allow private rights to blueline tilefish, gag grouper, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack, other jacks species and vermillion snapper for two years, allocated to 25 commercial vessels. Those vessels would be allowed to operate free of a number of fishing regulations.
The process is known as “catch shares,” which have drawn a rather significant amount of opposition.
A healthy number of fishermen arrived at the afternoon public comment period — 34 signed up to provide comments to the committee. But before they could begin, Crabtree made an unexpected announcement.
“A little earlier this afternoon, I received an email from the South Atlantic Commercial Fishing Collaborative, and they notified me they want to withdraw the exempted fishing permit …,” Crabtree said.
He added he believes the SACFC intends to reevaluate their plans going forward, working with fishermen and industry and could reapply, but for the moment, they were withdrawing.
The news led to a round of applause from the audience.