Written By: Bo Petersen (The Post and Courier)
Two existing reefs and a planned artificial reef offshore have been closed to bottom fishing, while federal regulators consider closing far larger areas.
The reefs will become Marine Protected Areas on Feb. 12, essentially wilderness sanctuary bottoms. The two existing reefs are 50-square-mile spans, one about 45 miles southeast of Charleston off Edisto Island and the other 54 miles off Murrells Inlet. The third is a 20-square-mile area about 50 miles southeast of Charleston that is planned as a memorial reef to a local fisherman.
The designations, to protect species such as grouper, were announced this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They are the result of a contentious, four-year process under pressure from conservation groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.
The closures are more disturbing to the few remaining, hard-pressed commercial fishermen than to recreational anglers.
The bottoms that far out range from 150 to 600 feet deep. Most recreational fishing in those waters is trolling for species such as marlin or tuna found above the bottom.
Opposition to the move was heated. At a public hearing in 2006 in Charleston, more than 30 anglers butted heads with environmental advocates and the mood quickly became confrontational.
Anglers are worried the closures signal a trend they fear will virtually end fishing offshore, costing millions in tourism and business revenue and shredding a cultural heritage as old as the Colonies.
In order to protect the red snapper, regulators also are considering shutting down huge spans of the bottom offshore to fish harvest, at least during spawning season.
That measure is one of several working its way through federal agencies as they follow a Congressional mandate to end overfishing of offshore species that researchers said are being depleted.
The protected areas are designed as nursery habitats of dropping depths, to protect spawns of the long-lived species throughout their lives.
The areas are among eight protected ones closed off in the Southeast, including the Snowy Grouper Wreck site off Cape Fear in North Carolina and a site off Georgia near the South Carolina line.
“It was a pretty tough decision for those guys to come up with areas they could agree on,” Jack McGovern, NOAA Fisheries branch chief, said about the committee of researchers, environmentalists and anglers that pieced together the protected areas.
“This is a red letter day for reef fish,” said Doug Rader, the Environmental Defense Fund scientist who weighed in on the process.
“I wouldn’t say no (to) it,” said Chuck Griffin of Mount Pleasant, a former commercial fisherman who now runs a charter boat.
He has seen how well fish spawn in protected habitats off Florida. “I think we can work with it,” he said. But cutting off wide areas of the bottom would destroy an industry and isn’t necessary.
Measures like tougher catch limits and enforcement would probably do the job better, he said, like they have restoring inshore species such as red drum.
“There probably aren’t as many fish out there as there used to be, but there’s still plenty of fish out there,” Griffin said. “For a lot of people, this is all we’ve ever done.”
The protected areas include the Charleston Deep Reef, an artificial reef proposed by S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
A group of Charleston fisherman is raising money to buy an old ship to sink there as a memorial for a beloved local fisherman, Tony Smoak, who died in 2008 at 43 years old.