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Environment: Commercial fishermen air concerns about federal rules

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

South Carolina commercial fishermen say they are the last of their kind.

“A lot of guys are starved out,” said Chris Conklin, owner of Seven Seas, a seafood distributor in Murrells Inlet and the state’s representative on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “It’s not an inviting industry to get into. There’s no sure future in it.”

On Tuesday Conklin and a half-dozen fishermen attended the first of 25 port meetings scheduled by the council to discuss snapper-grouper management in its four-state region that includes the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Fishermen were asked by the meeting’s facilitators Amber Von Harten and Myra Brouwer to first list the problems and frustrations with regulations and offer solutions.

“There have been stringent trip limits and a lot of rules and season closures on fishes that are important to the industry,” Conklin said. “But fish stocks are rebuilding.”

He said the fishery council has had its hands tied by the congressional mandate to end over-fishing on a strict time frame. “These have been extremely tough measures on recreational and commercial fishermen,” Conklin said. South Carolina is partly to blame for its situation, he said, because state fishermen have not been willing to participate in meetings that help set rules like Tuesdays “visioning session” at Capt. Dave’s Dockside in Murrells Inlet. North Carolina and Florida control the dialogue, and “we’re stuck in the middle,” he said. “Nobody pays attention until it’s too late. I want to get people engaged in the process early on so when something is coming up that’s going to affect us, we can get ahead of it. Being a young guy in the business, I didn’t want anybody telling me how I was going to operate.

“People in the Gulf of Mexico fish year-round the way they manage their fishery. They don’t have open and closed seasons. They still have to be accountable. A lot of guys don’t want to be closely monitored because they are doing illegal things.”

Larry Jones of Georgetown, a commercial fisherman who sells his catch to Seven Seas, said there are remedies that would help the business survive. If fisherman could catch more than one species at a time, he said they could come closer to making ends meet. “There’s nobody going to go out there and bust their butt for no more than you make,” he said. “There are more fish out there than what they think. They are putting all the pressure on one species. When grouper season opens, where does everybody go? The whole months of May and June there’s a derby on grouper. Why not allow another species?”

Fisherman also suggested annual catch limits that would allow keeping fish just under the size limit. Most fish die when thrown back into the ocean. Better data collection would allow fishermen to know how much of the quota remains during a season. “When we’ve got 19 percent of the quota left,” said Wayne Mershon of Kenyon Seafood, “it’s better to know on time rather than closing for three months and reopening for two weeks.”

Another suggestion to help South Carolina fishermen was to separate from Florida where vermilion snapper and tile fish are biting now. “They’re not being caught up here because of the weather,” Jones said. “They’re killing the tile fish down in Florida, and we haven’t had a chance to get out and fish.”

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