Next week in Wilmington, federal fish management leaders have a chance to help two severely diminished species in a move that could have a wide-ranging effect on North Carolina fishermen, seafood consumers and tourists who come to fish.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, on which I recently served as a North Carolina representative, will pick preliminary areas from our state south to Florida to close off to bottom fishing. Some of these are popular fishing spots. But this is a necessary step to protect some of the important habitat for speckled hind and Warsaw grouper – two species that many believe have been dealt a severe blow from decades of overfishing.
Because they are thought to be at such low levels, direct catch is currently prohibited. But the fish are still encountered incidentally while fishing for other species, and because of the great depths of those encounters, their survival rate is low. Extra protection is crucial.
A couple of years ago, the council closed off a huge area in the south Atlantic – virtually all waters deeper than 240 feet from North Carolina to Florida – to help rebuild these species. I supported that closure.
Subsequently, we found out that closing off that large area wasn’t helping these two species and was unnecessarily affecting fishermen. So I voted with the council in 2011 to lift the closure under the impression that the council would quickly develop a more pointed and effective plan. I retired from the council in 2012 after nine years, but I’m frustrated it has taken so long to develop an alternate plan, leaving a hole in protections for important species.
The current proposal before the council is a good one. Part of it realigns some existing marine-protected areas, increasing protection of habitats for these two species and others. Shifting the boundaries will include more continental shelf edge where fish tend to aggregate. At one site off Wilmington – called the Snowy Wreck – the proposed realignment would protect more of the “good” habitat and less of the sand bottom, while actually reducing the size of the area closed to bottom fishing.
But protecting additional good habitat is also needed, so the plan should create additional MPAs. The council has a number of alternatives to consider and will debate how much of an increase is necessary. I support a compromise that provides added help for the fish while not overly burdening the fishermen. It helps to have the fishermen’s support for plans that will enhance our resources, and most will agree that protecting fish where we know they spawn should take priority in these decisions.
Marine-protected areas sometimes get a bad rap, but they can help not only speckled hind and Warsaw grouper but other deepwater fish, too. We know from research and experiences here and around the world that within MPAs, fish grow bigger, they produce more and larger eggs, and their offspring colonize places outside the protected zones, contributing more fish to fishable stocks. That’s an investment in our fishing future.
I’ve been devoted to helping fisheries all my life as a fishery scientist/researcher at N.C. State University for 16 years, a member and past chair of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, chairman of the council’s snapper/grouper committee and as a lifelong recreational angler. We must do what’s right for our marine resources because they are the basis of a large part of our coastal economy. A few folks, no doubt, will be upset at losing some fishing spots that are important to them, but they need to realize the health of our marine environment is important to the entire state.
Mac Currin lives in Raleigh.