When the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council passed a regulation several years ago that required circle hooks to catch fish in the grouper-snapper complex, fishermen were caught up in questions about whether anglers targeting other bottomfish species could use standard J-hooks – or were they faced with trying to catch, say, flounder, on circle hooks. The answer is fairly simple: no.

The regulation change required circle hooks to be used with all hook-and-line gear when live bait was used. An overlooked part of the regulation required recreational and commercial fishermen to use dehooking tools when fishing for snapper or grouper and their affected cousins.

The SAFMC’s “snapper/grouper” complex includes 73 species, including eight different jacks, nine different porgies (including sheepshead), 11 grunts, three tilefish, three triggerfish,hogfish and Atlantic spadefish.The regulation is federal,affecting all waters from three to 200 miles offshore.

Many of those species happen to show up in the same areas as species such as flounder, which are not covered by the circle-hook requirement, and many North Carolina fishermen worried that they could be ticketed by marine enforcement officers while flounder fishing with standard J-hooks.

Capt. Jim Kelley of the N.C. Marine Patrol said the new regulations do not affect fishermen in state waters, from the beach to three miles out.

“This is a federal law,” Kelley said. “It has not been adopted by North Carolina. Our state waters begin at the beach and extend to three miles offshore.Federal waters begin at three miles offshore and extend to 200 miles offshore.” 

Rick Devictor, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the regulation was not meant to target anyone fishing for species not in the flounder/grouper complex.

“We tried to be very specific with the wording of this law,” Devictor said. “It requires using non-stainless steel circle hooks for any of the snapper-grouper complex species. Flounder is not included in the snapper-grouper complex, and circle hooks are not required for catching flounder.

“However, if on the fishing trip someone is catching flounder (and) they also decide to catch and keep any of the species in the snapper-grouper complex, they are required to catch them with circle hooks,” Devictor said. “If a fisherman has snapper-grouper complex species on board and then switches to catching something else, such as flounder, he must still have circle hooks on board. 

“There has to be some discretion left to the officer on the scene, but this is what we intended when we wrote this regulation,” Devictor said.