Fishery panel open to South Florida-specific rules zone

Creating a new South Florida fishing zone with standardized rules could be a welcome step toward more regionalization, members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council said at a Thursday hearing in Key Largo.

“I’m pretty serious about this South Florida thing,” said Ben Hartig, one of Florida’s appointments to the multi-state South Atlantic council.

Early workshops on the push to establish a zone that could include the Florida Keys, Southwest Florida and the Atlantic Ocean coastline up to Central Florida saw a “more relaxed format” that resulted in “a lot better information,” Hartig said. “The recommendations came from the public. It worked really well.”

As it stands now, Keys commercial fishers and recreational anglers on a single trip feasibly could cross waters with three different sets of rules adopted by the federal South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico councils, and Florida.

“That’s problematic,” said Hartig, a Hobe Sound commercial fisherman with a master’s degree in fisheries biology.

The South Atlantic council regulates 75 species of fish and marine life in federal ocean waters from North Carolina to Key West. That expanse creates a lot of differences in fishery stocks, behavior and spawning seasons, council Chairman David Cupka said.

“It’s hard to come up with regulations that fit everybody,” said Cupka, a retired South Carolina fishery manager. “You try to balance everybody’s needs but somebody’s going to wind up on the short end of the stick.”

Council members said suggestions for a formal South Florida federal region likely will not go far in Congress due to the strained federal budget.

However, a South Florida working group of representatives from the two federal councils and Florida could draft regional rules acceptable to the three jurisdictions, they said. “Hopefully we can find some common ground to do away with some of the confusion and inconsistency,” Cupka said.

“I’m sold that we need to split the South Atlantic into regions,” Hartig said. “Some of the fisheries are close to shore and others are far offshore.”

Issues open to comment at the Thursday hearing included generally uncontroversial changes to rules on snapper grouper, dolphin and wahoo, mackerel species and deepwater coral. Online comments are open through Sunday through the agency website, www.safmc.net.

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