Federal fisheries managers issued a bulletin on Jan. 28 notifying recreational fishermen along the South Atlantic coast that the black sea bass fishery will close Feb. 12 and not reopen until June 1.

NOAA Fisheries Service said the annual recreational catch limit of 409,000 pounds (gutted weight) would be reached by that date, and thec loser will affect all federal waters – three to 200 miles offshore – between Cape Hatteras, N.C., and Key West, Fla. This closure also applies to all vessels with a federal charter vessel/headboat permit operating in state waters.

The black sea bass fishery remains open north of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

According to NOAA Fisheries statistics, black sea bass are overfished. The commercial quota, 309,000 pounds gutted weight, was reached in mid-December and that fishery was closed until June 1. Federal regulations require harvest levels must be kept below these levels to prevent fish from being removed too quickly, and to rebuild the black sea bass population. The fishing year for black sea bass begins on June 1 and runs through May 31.

Federal fishery regulators say their hands are tied by the revised Magnusson-Stevens Act (MSA) that was re-authorized by Congress in 2006.  They say the act requires them to initiate measures to end overfishing and restore a fishery within a year of when it is classified as overfished and with ongoing overfishing.  On the other hand, many recreational and commercial fishermen believe there are too many connections between NOAA and the PEW Trust, Environmental Defense Fund and other ultra-conservation groups in fishery management, and that regulators are using the MSA to enforce their radical positions, using data that is old and inaccurate.

Fishermen are also upset because there is a management plan in place with a stock assessment report due this year. 

Capt. Keith Logan of Feeding Frenzy Charters in Little River, S.C., and Holden Beach, N.C. said a review of the black sea bass and tilefish fisheries are scheduled to begin Feb. 18 and extend to Oct. 24, with a report being made public soon thereafter.

"They are still working off the 'best available data' that they have from the charter/head boat surveys, and the fatally flawed MRFSS data," Logan said.

There is also concern that this closure is another body blow to charter-fishing businesses throughout the South Atlantic region. Red snapper season is closed indefinitely, vermilion snapper (beeliner) season is closed annually from Nov. 1 through March 31, shallow-water grouper season is closed annually from Jan. 1 through April 30, and another provision in federal fisheries regulations prohibits bottom-fishing in water deeper that 240 feet. Only porgies, triggerfish and grunts may be possessed during the winter months, and charter operators say they are not enough to sustain their business.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has legal action pending opposing the bottom-fishing mandates and has amended it to include the black sea bass closure, but because of the MSA, an injunction will not be forthcoming. RFA will be contesting the closure process for black sea bass to prevent closures in future years until accurate data is obtained.
The commercial harvest of black sea bass was closed on Oct. 7, 2010, because NOAA Fisheries Service projected the landings would reach the quota by that time. However, an updated report showed less fish were landed than expected and the commercial harvest for black sea bass reopened from Dec. 1 until Dec. 15, 2010.

Information on these and other actions contained in Amendment 17B can be found on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Web site at http://www.safmc.net, in the Black Sea Bass Frequently Asked Questions, in the Amendment 17B Frequently Asked Questions, and at the following NOAA Fisheries Service Southeast Region website.