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South Atlantic Bottomfish Management Issue

Berkley Conservation Institute

Saltwater anglers have been very concerned about the potential for large fisheries closures in the South Atlantic to protect and rebuild red snapper. This paper summarizes some of the issues related to fishing for snapper/grouper in this region and offers sources for more information.

Red snapper are a long lived deep water rockfish in the snapper/grouper complex in the South Atlantic region and the Gulf of Mexico. Because they are long lived and are very widely distributed, they are commonly caught in recreational and commercial fisheries. They were fished down to very low levels by heavy commercial fisheries over 40 years ago. They have been very slowly increasing in abundance and average size but are still estimated to be below 10% of pre-harvest abundance. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, NOAA and the affected state fish and wildlife agencies all agree that fisheries restrictions are needed to rebuild red snapper to maximum yield abundance more quickly than is currently the case.

Currently, there is a closure on the directed harvest of red snapper in sport and commercial fisheries in the South Atlantic region. There is ongoing concern that incidentally caught red snapper are killed at a very high rate, even though released because they suffer from barotrauma. Barotrauma is damage to the air bladder from bringing fish up from depth and releasing them on the surface, where the expanded air bladder prevents them from swimming back down to depth. There have been considerations of closing the entire snapper/grouper fishery at depths greater than 90 feet to reduce this release mortality and to rebuild red snapper more rapidly. However, because this would cause a catastrophic damage to the fishing economy of the region, and prevent access to other abundant fish species, the SAFMC, NOAA Fisheries and the State fish and wildlife agencies have avoided this closure for the near future.

Even though the 5,000 square mile closure to bottomfishing has been avoided for now, there are also restrictions to catching speckled hind and other species. Until anglers can correctly identify the various bottom fish species and release the restricted ones with acceptable survival, management in this region will continue to be troubled.

One solution is for anglers to use various techniques to release these fish at the depth that they were caught at originally. Research shows that if the fish are returned to depth, the water pressure reduces the air bladder and the fish are able to swim and forage naturally. Some fish will die due to excessive damage to air bladder, eyes or other organs but many will survive. Research on the best release methods to release fish at depth is continuing. Catch and release is simply one more reason that recreational fisheries need to be managed differently from commercial fisheries, where catch and release is very problematic.

For more information, check out:

Jim Martin - Conservation Director

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