Image: Red snapper
South Atlantic Fishery Management Council via AP
These red snapper, foreground, were caught by commercial fishermen and boxed at a dock in Mount Pleasant, S.C., before being taken to market to be sold to restaurants.
updated 3/6/2009 10:55:44 AM ET 2009-03-06T15:55:44

After three decades as a charter fishing guide, Steve Amick says he's never seen red snapper as large or plentiful as he did last year off Georgia's Atlantic coast. Soon, catching them could be illegal.

Scientists for the federal government say the bountiful catch reported from Florida to North Carolina is a shallow illusion. The red snapper population, they say, is dwindling and needs a break from decades of overfishing.

A federal agency — the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council — voted 7-6 Thursday in favor of a six-month ban on red snapper fishing off the southern Atlantic seaboard, despite cries from fisherman that the fish are plentiful and their business will sink under any ban.

The measure, which requires final approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service, would make catching red snapper illegal for commercial and recreational fishermen in Atlantic waters off Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — which had a combined catch of 415,000 pounds in 2007.

The ban would likely take effect in the summer spawning season if granted final approval. The council could later seek to extend any ban another six months.

"I don't like having to do it," said Duane Harris, chairman of the council that sets fishing rules for the southern East Coast. "The big picture is that red snapper stocks are in very bad shape."

Commercial fishermen and charter guides fiercely oppose any ban. For most, red snapper supplements incomes when not chasing grouper, mackerel, tuna and other fish. But other fishermen rely almost exclusively on red snapper.

"For us, the red snapper is the whole ballgame," said Amick, a Savannah charter captain whose four boats take about 3,000 anglers to sea each year. "If we can't fish for red snapper, we'll probably lose 90 percent of our business."

Holly Reynolds, a charter boat captain from Jackonsville, Fla., choked back tears Thursday as she told the council a ban could drive her out of business, months after buying an $800,000 boat.

"Every single customer who comes on my boat wants to catch red snapper," Reynolds said of reservations booked until October. "We're going to have to try to convince them there are other fish to catch. But I'd say 75 percent of them will cancel no matter what."

Popular for its sweet, nutty flavor, red snapper has been coveted for decades by seafood connoisseurs and sushi lovers. Commercial fisherman fetch a high price — $4 or $5 a pound — for the fish. It's also prized by recreational anglers, who account for about three-fourths of the Atlantic catch.

A 2008 stock assessment, the latest by the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the Atlantic snapper is in peril from being caught faster than they can sustainably reproduce for almost 50 years.

Researchers estimate the total population of spawning females in the Atlantic has dipped to 375 metric tons — about 3 percent of what's deemed a healthy population.

"Today's decision was a hard one, but it was necessary," said Holly Binns, who heads the Pew Environment Group's campaign to end overfishing in the South. "The science is clear."

But scientists' findings have fishermen baffled. They insist red snapper stocks are rebounding after 1992 regulations required them to throw back any snapper under 20 inches and limited recreational anglers to two fish per trip.

Several fishermen at Thursday's council session questioned the accuracy of scientists' assessments. Reynolds said it's now common for her customers to catch 40 snapper on a single trip, when they would have been lucky to catch a dozen about 10 years ago.

"This is the most absurd thing I've ever heard," said Sid Preskitt, a commercial fisherman from Daytona Beach, Fla. "There's more of an abundance of red snapper off the East Coast now than anybody's seen in generations."

Scientists say some unusually strong spawning seasons several years ago are confusing fishermen who are seeing a glut of larger fish at or above the 20-inch limit.

Environmental groups insist even a temporary ban in the Atlantic won't be enough to help the red snapper recover, noting many die as unwanted bycatch of fishermen pursuing other species. They support a more comprehensive action the council is drafting on a range of fish species sought for implementation next year.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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