"The concept of the state going out of compliance with federal management is a major consideration and not one to be taken lightly, but it is a product of the frustration felt by many anglers concerning the federal fisheries management process," said Scott Whitaker, CCA-SC's executive director.
Whitaker said the black sea bass fishery has been under a "constant catch" recovery program since 2006, which has locked in artificially low catch limits even as the stock has rebounded significantly. Recreational anglers are encountering black sea bass more frequently and catching their quota far more quickly, only to have access to the fishery severely restricted, he said.
Once a year-round fishery, anglers had just a 90-day season in 2012.
CCA believes black sea bass is no longer so much a conservation issue as a management issue, Whitaker said.
Rep. Stephen Goldfinch (R-Georgetown), who introduced the legislation to return management of the species to the state, said his bill would do that just in state waters. Federal management would continue in waters beyond the state management zone – three miles and farther offshore.
"Prior to 2006, South Carolina was primarily responsible for the fishery," Goldfinch said. "Unfortunately, around that time, with the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, we got into a situation where the federal government established regional management councils (that) tend to establish policy for really large tracts of water."
Federal fisheries from North Carolina to Florida are governed by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which did creel surveys on black sea bass, including some of the most overfished waters in Florida, Goldfinch said.
"South Carolina and North Carolina have larger fish and more fish, especially black sea bass," he said. "Black sea bass are a species that tends to be prolific, and the problem arises when you start managing the species based on Florida numbers. They are overpopulated, and now they are pushing inshore in South Carolina from their typical range. As a result, they are starting to devour juvenile grouper and snapper, which are very important species to our recreational and commercial fishermen."
Goldfinch's bill would amend the South Carolina law providing for the adoption of certain federal laws that regulate fishing in state waters to drop black sea bass from the species that fall under federal regulation. It would set a daily limit of five fish at least 13 inches long, with no closed fishing season.
"The impact of going out of compliance on the stock can't be overlooked or dismissed. That will have to be evaluated and weighed carefully. However, the legislation filed by Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, is simply a reflection of the ongoing problems anglers are seeing in federal fisheries management," said Mike Able, CCA-SC Government Relations committee chairman. "No one wants to go backwards with regard to the conservation of this important recreational species, but neither should anyone be content with a management regime that seems unable or unwilling to find a way to reap the benefits of success."
Able said the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division, working with anglers and user groups, has proven its willingness to invest in South Carolina's fisheries, use their expertise to provide the greatest access to those resources, and maximize the benefits of those resources for the citizens of the Palmetto State.
"To many anglers, federal management is broken, and rather than hoping that NOAA Fisheries will someday figure out how to copy the success of the states, CCA-SC believes that proposals to allow the states to take greater control of management deserve serious consideration," he said.
"We can take back management of black sea bass in state waters, and it will make a difference," Goldfinch said. "In the past, a lot of people would make the argument that it would not make any difference because black sea bass are typically an offshore species, but now they are inshore, in our rivers, marshes and estuaries."
Goldfinch said management of the coastal fishery is a state issue.
"In 2009, we established a constitutional amendment giving us a right to hunt and fish and use those species the way we want to. The federal government is impinging on that right. We want the right to manage our own fisheries and that is what this bill does."
While management of black sea bass in federal waters would remain under federal management in his bill, Goldfinch said he has appealed to Congress to return management authority of coastal fisheries in both state and federal waters to South Carolina.
"I put up a concurrent resolution and sent it to Congress to give us authority to manage those species that come back to South Carolina waters. Whether that will ever happen, I don't know," he said.