Three-day maximum

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Descending devices have reduced catch-and-release mortality rates by two thirds for some deepwater species. Photo by Adrian Gray.

Descending devices have reduced catch-and-release mortality rates by two thirds for some deepwater species. Photo by Adrian Gray.

At the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced recreational anglers from North Carolina to Florida could have a three-day 2020 red snapper season — but may end up with no season at all.

Since 2010, the recreational sector has been allowed to harvest red snapper in South Atlantic federal waters a cumulative total of 37 days, despite the fact that anglers report an increase in the species.

Under the current regulatory framework, a recreational South Atlantic red snapper season of three or fewer days is prohibited. Changing that framework requires a rule-making period which is in its early stages.

Over the last decade, anglers have been confused by NOAA Fisheries’ decision to limit public access to red snapper despite the plentiful number of fish they are encountering on the water.

The news was met with anger from recreational anglers, said Center for Sportfishing Policy president Jeff Angers.

“Effectively eliminating the South Atlantic red snapper season is a prime example of federal fisheries management failure,” said Angers in a statement. “Unlike a buffet line, anglers cannot choose which fish to reel up from the deep, and when they are forced to throw red snapper back, many fish inevitably die. When discard mortality of these prized fish is 30 times the amount anglers can keep annually, the system is clearly broken. Wanton waste of so much of this precious resource is unacceptable and disheartening.”

In 2018, the South Atlantic red snapper recreational sector Annual Catch Limit was set at 29,656 fish. In the same year, NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Information Program estimated that 3,174,288 red snapper were released alive by Florida anglers in the South Atlantic alone. Using the accepted 28.5 percent recreational discard mortality rate, the number of released red snapper that did not survive is an estimated 904,672 fish.

The recreational fishing and boating community has long advocated for the use of descending devices to reduce the mortality rate of prized reef fish such as snapper and grouper. When deep-water fish are brought rapidly to the surface, they experience barotrauma — a condition where a buildup of gas pressure in their bodies makes it difficult or impossible to swim back down. If a fisherman releases the fish due to size, season or bag limit restrictions and the fish does not survive, this is a dead discard or wasted fish. A descending device is a weighted hook, lip clamp, or box that will hold the fish while it is lowered to a sufficient depth to recover from the effects of barotrauma and release the fish.

The recreational sector has taken a leadership role in advocating for the use of descending devices to improve survivability of released reef fish.

The South Atlantic Council approved this requirement in Amendment 29 in September 2019, but NOAA officials have shown no urgency to implement the rule and save these fish, according to the CSP.

“Anglers have always done what’s necessary for sound conservation and management, including altering fishing techniques and accepting tighter restrictions to recover a fishery,” said Angers. “It’s time the federal government started helping us in the South Atlantic. Let’s start saving America’s marine resources from being needlessly wasted and implement the descending device requirement now.”

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