Feds To Shut Down Red Snapper Fishing?

From Carolina to Key West, anglers who have helped gather data to improve fish stocks, and who have seen fishing rebound, are about to be shut-down by a bureaucratic tragedy.

Steve Burch | June 1, 2009

Fred Wammock displays his and the boat’s largest of 23 red snapper. The rest of the crew is crowded around an assortment of black sea bass, vermillion and silver snapper and triggerfish. The cleaning board is right behind them, and it was put to good use.


The Scat II beat its way southeasterly into the 4- to 6-foot seas that were being pushed north by a stiff 20-knot breeze. The clear May dawn promised fair weather, but a bumpy ride and rocking horse fishing at the snapper banks.

At her helm, perched in the captain’s chair, sat her designer and for the past three decades, her captain, Steve Amick. He deftly coordinated power and rudders to take what the sea gave, to scoot head on the flat parts and to hunker down when tall sets of waves crashed her bows, sending torrents of drenching spray over the boat.

Behind him, on benches that lined the cabin, sat 10 eager fishermen. The day promised a long ride and a gyrating deck — but fast fishing and a dock loaded with red snapper at the end of the day.

At the stern of the cabin stood Scott, our mate and the captain’s son. Scott was veteran of the boat, the family fishing business, and the regulatory storm we were sailing into.

All on board were aware that this fishing for red snapper was about to be illegal.

The ride out that began at 7 a.m. came to a welcomed end about 9:20 when Capt. Steve throttled back the throaty diesels and began to check his drift speed and direction over the productive bottom. We had arrived at the Grand Banks.

Penn 4/0 reels with heavy mono and a two-hook rigs set just above the 16-oz. weight were the tools of the trade for turning cut bait — sardines and squid — into red snapper.

The limit was two red snapper each. Fish shorter than 20 inches had to be released.

Chaos on the deck of the Scat II as Randy shows off a good snapper, while Capt. Steve helps Daniel with lines, and Scott (right) slides another red snapper in the box.

The water was clear and deep blue, and we could follow our baits down the first 20 feet or so as we sent them toward the bottom 100 feet below the boat.

Ten rods over the gunwales, 20 hooks at the bottom, two anglers fishing shoulder-to-shoulder and between their feet. The first bite was almost immediate.

Much more slowly and stubbornly than the lines went down, anglers struggled to bring them back up bearing the weight of fighting fish.

Red snapper, vermillion snapper, silver snapper, triggerfish, black sea bass, remora and one lone grouper took our baits and fought against a grudging ride to the surface.

Bites were missed, lines were tangled, waves banged the boat, huge hook sets sent angler and fish in a fierce struggle for 6 feet of water. If the fish could dig down and attain the crevasse of a ledge, the angler lost. The play-by-play tale of the 100-foot tug-of-war between fish and man was told by the arch in the heavy boat rod and the red jowls of the fisherman struggling under the pressure.

In five different locations, over the next couple of hours, more than 50 red snapper were caught. If we could count, we would have caught 24 keeper snappers. As it was, we landed 23.

Actually, this count faux pas was understandable. After each drop, Scott would relate the catch and the catch-and-release to his father. Steve faithfully recorded this information for use in fisheries-management efforts — efforts he has believed in and supported, until this year.

Now, the data he has collected, plus a conclusion that is in dispute, and a hissy fit by a Washington senator seems certain to put Steve Amick and most of the charter-boat captains in Georgia and the Carolinas out of business.

There are no true villains in this story; no one who really deserves to be hung up by his or her thumbs. But there is a scientific and bureaucratic blindness that is about to decree an injustice. The tragedy is that the Steve Amicks of the world are defenseless against it. The shame of it is that the scientists could bring justice.

And this is just the first chapter. This month, in Stewart, Fla., these same people are about to magnify their error by a factor of 10.

Red-snapper fishing in the south Atlantic is almost certain to be closed by July 1. By July 1 of 2010, it seems likely that all bottom fishing will end.

The reason is that federal law prevents over-fishing.

Is over-fishing occurring?

According to the fish scientists, it is over-fished, and has been, since 1970. As a matter of fact, it is being over-fished at eight times sustainable yield since at least 1991.

According to fishermen, the fishing has been getting better since 1991, and today you can catch a limit of red snapper in less than two hours.

The scientific reports do not support the results fishermen see on their depthfinders or on the ends of their lines.

How over-fished are red snapper?

Government scientists say for every one red snapper out there right now, there should be 50. Other scientist disagree strongly.

That is because they estimate the red-snapper fishery in 1946 at 30,000 tons and today’s fishery at 600 tons.

According to government scientists, only 2 percent of the red snapper are left.

Further, until we reach that 30,000 tons, the fishery will not be “recovered.”

When scientists are asked how confident they are about that 30,000 figure, they say that this figure does not lend itself to that sort of review.

In other words, the 30,000 is a guess.

Enter Ted Stevens, the ex-senator from Alaska, the king ear-marker who grabbed the money for the bridge to no-where… remember… that Ted Stevens. Before he lost his election, he wrote a bill called Magnuson-Stevens which required the end of any over-fishing anywhere in U.S. waters — a laudable goal. But he said it had to be done in one year. Stevens basically pitched a legislative fit.

Regulators are now required to carry this out.

This spasm of fisheries management by legislative decree is punishing unfairly and unnecessarily good cooperators like Steve Amick and many others who have followed the federal rules for the past 20 years.

The rigid constraints of the law need to be adjusted, and the scientific process of managing these fisheries needs checks that protect the fishery, the good science and the good cooperators.

The legislature does not suffer when it makes bad decisions. The scientists do not suffer when they make bad decisions.

If we are going to close a livelihood for the likes of the Steve Amicks of the world, then they also should not be made to suffer. We pay farmers not to plant wheat. Should we pay Steve not to fish? If we insist on this silly science and permit this silly law, then yes, it seems the next silly thing to do.

In either event, if you want to catch a red snapper in the next decade or so, you might want to do it now.

After all, the fishing is GREAT!

Bob Cross (left) watches buddy Rick Kingerski struggle to get his fish off the bottom, while John Mayfield has his fish headed up.

Is this his first and last? Daniel Carter caught his first ever red snapper on this trip a few weeks ago.

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