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Feds consider fishing ban on Atlantic red snapper
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — 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 proposed temporary ban on red snapper fishing is scheduled to face a vote Thursday on Jekyll Island, Ga., by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The government agency sets fishing rules for the whole southern East Coast.

The proposal would place red snapper off limits for up to six months in Atlantic waters fronting Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina — where fishermen hauled in a combined catch of 415,000 pounds in 2007.

The ban is fiercely opposed by commercial fishermen and charter guides. For most, red snapper supplements incomes when not fishing for grouper, mackerel, tuna and other fish. But other fishermen rely almost exclusively on red snapper.

Popular for its sweet, nutty flavor, red snapper has been in high demand 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.

"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."

A 2008 stock assessment, the latest by the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the Atlantic snapper is in peril from being caught by fishermen 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.

"There's not a lot of alternatives other than to close it down for some period of time," said Roy Crabtree, the Fisheries Service's southeast regional administrator, who also sits on a federal council considering a ban.

If all hurdles are cleared, a ban could take effect by the summer spawning season.

But the proposed ban has fishermen baffled. They insist red snapper stocks are rebounding after 1992 regulations required them to throw back any snapper under 20 inches and also limited recreational anglers — who catch three-quarters of all Atlantic snappers — to two fish per trip.

"Red snapper, my God, it's the best fishing I've seen in 10 years," said Bill Stewart, a Sebastian, Fla., charter captain.

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 that the council is drafting on a range of fish species.

"Drastic action is needed to rebuild this fishery," said Holly Binns, who heads the Pew Environment Group's campaign to end overfishing in the South.
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