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Spawning zones established off of coast

image: grouper
One of five spawning SMZs to be established off the South Atlantic coast beginning on July 31 will be in the Georgetown Hole area. The closures to snapper-grouper fishing are designed to protect reef species such as this snowy grouper. Submitted photo

July 21, 2017 6:33 PM
Rule set go into effect aimed at producing ‘fish factories’ in South Carolina, elsewhere

By Gregg Holshouser

For The Sun News

On July 31, five bottom areas off the South Atlantic coast, including a portion of the renowned Georgetown Hole, will be closed to snapper-grouper fishing and designated as spawning special management zones (SMZs).

Within the boundaries of the SMZs, fishing for, retention and possession of 55 species in the snapper-grouper complex will be prohibited for all anglers.

Trolling for species such as dolphin, wahoo, tuna and billfish will be allowed within the SMZs.

The bottom closures are the result of the final rule of Amendment 36 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region, which was approved by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in March, 2016 and eventually signed by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

The spawning SMZs are meant to protect spawning snapper-grouper species and their spawning habitat by prohibiting fishing for or harvest of the species in the designated areas.

Three of the spawning SMZs are located off the South Carolina coast, and one each off the coast of North Carolina and Florida.

Details of the five areas to be closed follow:

South Cape Lookout: This is a 5.10-square mile area on a ledge that drops from depths of 230 feet to over 330 feet and is located approximately 56 miles southeast of Beaufort Inlet, N.C.

Georgetown Hole: A 3.03-square mile portion of the sprawling Georgetown Hole will be closed. The closed area is centered around a unique spur contour which drops from 330 feet to 500 feet. The entire SMZ drops from 230 to 650 feet deep.

Areas 51 and 53: These two artificial reef areas were established by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources – Area 51 in the late 1990s and Area 53 in 2001 – but were not included among the public artificial reefs. Both areas are located southeast of Charleston, Area 51 in approximately 70 feet of water and Area 53 in approximately 105 feet of water.

S.C. DNR has used the two areas as an experimental reef site to observe the proliferation, or lack thereof, of reef species on structure with little fishing pressure.

As of July 31, the two areas will be legally protected from snapper-grouper fishing.

Warsaw Hole: This area covers 3.60-square miles and is located west of Key West, Fla., on a ledge dropping from 260 to 500 feet in depth.

The amendment includes a sunset clause that could discontinue the SMZs after 10 years, if the SAFMC allows that to occur.

“The idea is to monitor those sites,” said Mel Bell, director of the Office of Fisheries Management within the Marine Resources Division of S.C. DNR. “Either they work or they don’t. The council has the ability to renew them if they are working.”

Bell, one of three South Carolinians on the SAFMC, expects the new SMZs to become what he calls “fish factories” – areas where snapper-grouper species proliferate and spawn without receiving any fishing pressure.

Bell relates to his observations and studies of Areas 51 and 53 over the past 20 years. Soon after Area 51 was put in place in the late 1990s, Bell saw quick growth in the populations of the reef species that took to the structure.

“In a couple years we were amazingly satisfied with (Area 51),” said Bell. “Both (areas) are working quite well. The concept is if you take an area, whether naturally occurring or an area built (into an artificial reef), and leave it alone you can get an amazing amount of fish on there, have amazing abundance.”

The three other areas – South Cape Lookout, Georgetown Hole, Warsaw Hole – are all naturally occurring deep-water ledges that hold deep-water grouper species such as snowy, warsaw and speckled hind.

Of most local interest, the “spur” feature to be closed in the Georgetown Hole area has long been known as a hot spot for snowy grouper and warsaw. The area produced the South Carolina state record warsaw, a 310-pounder caught out of Murrells Inlet in 1976.

“You’ve got a really good drop in depth around a very distinct little spur feature that for whatever reason is where fish go to spawn,” said Bell. “We’ve seen pictures of huge warsaw caught years ago, that area is where those fish used to be. We know warsaw are out there and we’ve found them in spawning condition – leave them alone then you’re providing productivity for (these species).”

Bell pointed out the impact of the SMZs stretches well beyond the boundaries of the boxes, his terminology for the areas closed to snapper-grouper fishing.

“The fish will move out of the boxes and into the system,” said Bell. “When they spawn, the eggs float, they get into the current and move downstream. The production that occurs in these fish factories goes into the whole system, it doesn’t stay in the box.”