For more than two years, a federal ban on red snapper has been felt as acutely off Beaufort County's coasts as it has in its kitchens.
That could change this summer, as the North Charleston-based South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted Friday to lift that moratorium on catching the prized fish -- although under narrow and tightly regulated conditions.
Recreational anglers could legally catch and keep red snapper only during three-day fishing weekends later this summer, as dictated by the National Marine Fisheries Service. They would be limited to one snapper per person per day, but there would be no size limits.
Commercial fishermen would have a seven-day snapper season -- the dates have not yet been announced -- with a 50-pound trip limit, as part of a 13,067-fish quota requested by the council.
The plan still needs approval from the Department of Commerce, but "there's no reason to believe they wouldn't authorize it," according to Mel Bell, director of fisheries management with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Charleston.
Bell said the council's decision was motivated primarily by two factors.
"They want to try to allow some opportunities for fishermen," he explained. "Hopefully, it will generate a little economic impact -- not much, but some."
He said the council also hopes to analyze biological data from any snapper collected this summer to determine the extent of future restrictions on the species.
Holly Binns of the Pew Environmental Group said the council's decision indicates the snapper fishery is healthier than it was in January 2010, when decades of overfishing led to the moratorium.
"The population had plummeted to between 11 and 14 percent of a healthy level, and full recovery will take years," Binns said. "But lifting the moratorium is an early sign that the long-term rebuilding plan is working."
Binns added that because snapper can live for more than 50 years and don't typically reach peak reproductive maturity until they are 10, it's imperative to exercise caution in reopening the fishery.
"We have to be careful we're not catching them too early," she said. "I don't know that we'll see unrestricted fishing of snapper in the near future."
Hilton Head Island charter boat captain Bill Parker said there's no cause for such concern locally.
The fish are abundant off Beaufort County's coasts, he maintained, adding he often has to disappoint clients who inadvertently land one and hope to turn it into a tasty dinner.
"I'm optimistic that this is the first step toward seeing a year-round snapper season," he said. "The ban should never have been put on them in the first place."