Beaufort charter guides buoyed by potential lift of snapper ban

gmartin@islandpacket.comMay 3, 2012 

Times have changed, Wally Phinney says, since he first opened his charter fishing business in Beaufort in 1983.

"There weren't any catch limits, any size restrictions," he recalls. "And let me tell you, the fish were bigger back then."

But the ensuing three decades brought about progressively tighter restrictions for Phinney and his fellow fishermen, including a ban on catching red snapper, put in place in January 2010.

"That was an overreaction," he says. "They should have given it more study; there's plenty of (snapper) out there."

"They," in this case, would be the North Charleston-based South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which governs fisheries in coastal waters from North Carolina to Key West.

The council raised both the hopes -- and eyebrows -- of many local charter guides earlier this week by scheduling a discussion on a "red snapper emergency rule" at its June meeting.

The agenda item indicates the council is open to lifting the snapper ban, pending data from the National Marine Fisheries' science center, according to Holly Binns of the Pew Environment Group.

"If the analysis comes back and the numbers pan out, there's a pretty high likelihood the council will move as quickly as (it) can to lift the ban," Binns said. "That would be sooner than a lot of people anticipated."

Binns said red snapper numbers throughout the council's jurisdiction had dipped in 2008 to just three to five percent of what is considered a healthy, sustainable population.

By 2010, she said, that figure had grown to 11 to 14 percent -- still low enough to warrant the ban.

Council representative Kim Iverson said data also showed not just a decline in snapper numbers but in their average age, which she called equally worrying.

She said the ban helped the existing population mature, particularly significant because snappers' reproductive capacity increases as they age.

What that data doesn't reflect is the relative health of the snapper fishery off the coast of Beaufort County, says Jason DuBose, who operates Hilton Head Sportfishing Charters.

"I've been fishing here for nine years, and snapper fishing's been getting better each year," he said.

DuBose called the ban "unjustified," adding his clients inadvertently hook red snapper frequently while bottom-fishing for grouper 25 to 30 miles off the coast.

"There have been times when we've literally had to pick up and leave some areas because snapper is all we're catching," he said. He described many of them as full-grown at 15 to 20 pounds.

He said if the council lifts the ban later this summer, the effect on the local charter fishing community would be positive and immediate, citing the fish's demand among clients for its taste.

"It would definitely mean an increase in business for us, especially during the fall, which is prime bottom-fishing season," he said. "It would be nice to be able to keep just one or two of them."

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