Fishermen speak out about catch limit controversy

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) -  Fishermen will be gathering in North Charleston Wednesday to voice their concerns about proposed catch limits that they believe will negatively impact business.

The limits come as the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council works to comply with a federal mandate to set catch limits based on best available data.

"To be honest with you sometimes that can mean garbage unfortunately," shared Tom Swatzel, member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Swatzel says the data has to be improved before fishermen are going to have confidence in the system.

"The fishermen are seeing a lot of fish out there," he said. "The scientists are showing something different and it's kind of hard to reconcile the two."

Swatzel says the fishery council gets caught in the middle in trying to reconcile the data with the concerns over the data's accuracy.

Regardless, Swatzel says the increased regulation is hitting fishermen at the wrong time.

"The economy has tanked, fuel prices are going up, in many cases these fisheries don't show any real signs of having any problems."

Swatzel says the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act that was signed by President Bush in 2006 requires annual catch limits to be determined by the end of this year. For the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, that means it is crunch time to come up with an official recommendation.

In the mean time, fishermen of all types are coming together up and down the coast to have their concerns heard.

"One thing we're adapting and overcoming is to get everyone united as one group," charter boat Captain Keith Logan said.

"Eventually it's going to take [all] kinds of fishermen uniting under a common front to have the federal government use science that is accurate, fair, and a good measure of the actual fish stocks that are out there," added Chris Burrows, Store Manager at West Marine in North Myrtle Beach.

Burrows says it is not just the fishermen out on the water that are impacted by catch limits but many businesses that sit landlocked like West Marine.

"We provide products to all of them so we definitely feel affected by what's being proposed right now," Burrows said.

Fishermen like Keith Logan say what they are asking for is better data and more time.

"[Just] because the Magnuson-Stevens Act says this has to be done by the end of 2011, don't try to force everything down us at one time," Logan said. "Give us time to adapt and overcome."

"These are almost arbitrary and capricious deadlines we're trying to meet," Swatzel argued. "Some of these fisheries are not over fished so there's not a real need to pursue some of these annual catch limits right now. We'd like the flexibility to not have to do that but the law says otherwise."

Both Logan and Swatzel say at the end of the day, everyone wants to see the fisheries thrive.

"We're probably the number one conservationist there is because this is our livelihood," Logan emphasized. "If we can't continue to support our livelihood through the conservation then were going to be out of business."

"I'm convinced that all commercial and recreational fishermen buy into the notion that you should have sustainable fisheries," Swatzel said. "It's just a disagreement about how to get there and a disagreement about whether there are fisheries that are being over fished."

Swatzel says he is looking forward to hearing the public comments that come out of Wednesday's hearing in North Charleston.

"Hopefully they'll the give fishery council some guidance in what direction to go with these annual catch limits," Swatzel said.

Swatzel says he is concerned there is not enough money being spent from the federal government on fisheries data.

"We're data poor," Swatzel admitted. "I think that's why a lot of fishermen are frustrated at the end result because they feel like there's a lot more fish out there than the data shows."

Swatzel says that from a fisherman's perspective it would be good if Congress would revisit the Magnuson-Stevens Act to give councils more flexibility in complying with some of the regulations.

He says ultimately it is an issue that has the potential to affect people and businesses up and down the coast.

"The fewer of these fish that can be landed the less people are going to come in terms of tourism based on fisheries," he said. "So it means a lot for restaurants, hotels, and businesses in general along the coast."

"If the recreational fishermen and charter boat guys want to continue fishing this year and in the future its important they show up and have their speak," Logan emphasized.

Wednesday's public hearing will take place in North Charleston at the Crown Plaza located at 4831 Tanger Outlet Boulevard.

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