Fishermen might only have a few months to reel in red snapper off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida following a decision Thursday to halt such fishing for six months. That ban might stretch into a full year.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved the ban on a 7-6 vote in an attempt to allow stocks to recover. The six-month ban comes with an optional six-month extension. The council is responsible for all fish stocks off the Southeast coast.
The closure has to be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Council spokeswoman Kim Iverson said the fishery could close in June.
If the ban goes into effect, officials will develop a long-term plan to protect the popular game fish.
Federal agencies notified the council in July 2008 that red snapper has been over-fished since 1945. The game fish continues to decline in population, the federal officials said. Congress requires the council to propose regulations to end over-fishing within a year of such notification.
Many commercial fishermen and charter captains who opposed the closure because it could hurt business attended the council meeting on Jekyll Island, Ga., and asked members to keep the fishery open.
Holly Binns of the nonprofit Pew Environment Group said that while closures can create hardships for fishermen, federal law is clear that fishery managers must protect severely over-fished species.
"The council made a difficult but necessary decision to protect red snapper for the long term," she said.
Binns said the interim closure will probably be extendedfor the optional six months to allow scientists and fishery managers time to finish and approve a protection plan. That plan might mean red snapper is off-limits for several years or until the population rebuilds.
The plan also islikely to include fishing limitations or closures on nine other species facing over-fishing, Binns said. Those include vermilion snapper, black seabass, tilefish, and warsaw, black, snowy, red, gag and speckled hind
The council is scheduled to meet again June 8-12 in Stuart, Fla.