What if recreational bottom-fish limits were based on the total weight caught per trip, instead of the size and number of fish caught? Would that make more sense, since many of the too-small fish reeled up from the deep die after being thrown back?
Since the total yearly allowable catch of red snapper off the Southeast is so small, should regulators issue tags for individual fish rather than continue setting short fishing seasons?
Should the ability to regulate some bottom species be transferred from federal to state governments?
How can we get more accurate, timely information about bottom fish stocks and recreational fishing efforts? Can regulators use such information to loosen or tighten limits as each fishing season progresses?
These were just some of the many questions raised during an innovative meeting held in February at Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply in West Ashley.
Amber Von Harten, outreach specialist with the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, led the informal brainstorming session, one of nearly 20 to be held in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida this spring.
The outreach project is designed to give anglers the chance to help shape a new, long-term plan for managing the snapper-grouper fishery off the Southeast.
The meeting in Charleston drew about 20 attendees, many of whom worked for either state or federal fisheries management programs. But the group also included a few recreational anglers and divers, as well as local commercial fisherman Mark Brown and Mike Able, owner of Haddrell's Point and a state board member of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina.
For more than an hour, the group identified shortcomings of current management measures and suggested possible solutions.
Some of the key issues identified included:
Long-standing challenges with red snapper management.
After federal fisheries laws were revamped about eight years ago, regional fisheries managers began to tighten commercial and recreational limits for popular bottom fish, including various snappers and groupers.
Red snapper regulations were one of the first to undergo drastic tightening, a move that rattled recreational, commercial and charter fishing communities throughout the Southeast. In recent years, the species has become a poster child for ongoing frustrations over federal fisheries management.
Anglers at the Charleston meeting voiced that frustration, some arguing that rules seemingly designed to curb overfishing in Florida shouldn't apply in South Carolina.
Most questioned whether federal scientists were acting on accurate information about the stock's health off the Palmetto State, and lobbied for a change that allowed for limits to be set state-by-state instead of "one-size-fits-all" for a four-state region.
The need for better research and more reliable, timely information about fish populations and fishing efforts.
Commercial fishermen are required to keep detailed logs, recreational anglers are not. A general uncertainty about recreational catches has fueled acrimony in recent debates over bottom fishing: How can managers set limits when they don't know for sure how many fish are being caught?
"What hurts our fish assessments, in my opinion, is a lack of recreational data," Capt. Brown said during the meeting. "A lot of it is done with random intercepts and calls, and it's been done a long time like that. It's just a real variable of what's actually being harvested."
Brown and a number of other attendees brainstormed new ways to gather recreational fishing data, from various online reporting systems to another level of licensing.
"There needs to be a reef fish stamp or something that is implemented in each state," Brown said. "And make it mandatory that they report what they caught on the Internet or in a log book.
"Most people who have a boat that goes offshore, they're spending a lot of money to go fishing. To spend a little bit on a stamp to help fund a program seems like it would be pretty trivial."
Able, Haddrell's owner and CCA board member, said the revenue generated by such a stamp or license should go to state governments, and he suggested the process involve a questionnaire to shed new light on angling efforts.
"There's a wealth of information to be gained from every fishing license," he said.
The need to reduce discard mortality, which weighs heavily on the snapper-grouper fishery since fish can be critically injured when being reeled up from great depths.
Some anglers suggested eliminating size limits in favor of trip weight limits. It's wasteful, they argue, to throw back any fish that will most likely die from barotrauma.
The group also discussed the use of new mechanisms being developed that can be used to quickly send fish back down to deeper water, which is thought to increase their chance of survival. Requiring the use of such devices could change the way managers calculate discard mortality in a particular fishery, which in turn could increase total allowable catch.
Providing protection for key spawning habitats without permanently closing off large swaths of prime fishing grounds.
Conservation groups, fisheries managers and even most commercial and recreational anglers seem to agree on the need to protect key areas where fish gather to reproduce.
The question, as posed by one angler during the meeting at Haddrell's, is whether "it could be a one-mile-by-one-mile area that's closed 6 months out of the year as opposed to a 10-square-mile area that's closed all the time."
Anglers also questioned why new Marine Protected Areas are set up permanently.
"That's something that keeps coming up," said Myra Brouwer, a federal fisheries biologist who helped run the meeting. "If you're going to close big chunks of the ocean, then you need to say it's going to be closed until this date. It may be 10 years or 15 years, but that (a sunset clause) is something that people really seem to want."
Anglers and managers also called for more research to identify specific spawning sites, as opposed to large chunks of ocean bottom, and to learn more about how and when the fish use them.
"I grew up in the era of the red snapper bonanzas," Brown shared with the group. "Anytime one of those places was found, it was a place nobody had ever fished. Somebody would stumble over it by trolling by, they would catch red snapper on all their lines, and it would be some old airplane wreck or a sinkhole. We even caught them on an old bucket of a crane - weird things.
"Once they got fished, you could go back there and catch a few but it was never the same. Those fish would never come back there to spawn in big aggregations."
Be a part of the process
Federal fisheries managers want to learn more from local anglers about snapper-grouper fishing and regulations. To submit comments and ideas, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For details about the council's snapper-grouper "visioning" project and to see a schedule of future port meetings, go to safmc.net. Stakeholders also can contact Amber Von Harten, SAFMC outreach specialist, at email@example.com or 843-571-4366.