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      Government announces new method of figuring catch limits

      A government agency says it has a new way to decide catch limits for recreational fishermen. The new method announced this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is supposed to produce more accurate and timely estimates of the number of fish being caught and thus, the limits placed on future catches.

      Since it would be impossible to count every fish caught from every boat in the country, the NOAA Fisheries Service uses estimates based on sampling and interviews with fishermen.

      But many fishermen think the counting method is inaccurate. Commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen don't agree on everything, but they both have complaints about the way the government justifies limiting the catch of popular fish species.

      Commercial fish dealer Wayne Mershon believes the government over-estimates the number of fish that are caught, which leads to artificially-low limits on how many fish that people are allowed to catch.

      "We've seen times that the fish didn't bite, but yet, we caught our quotas," said Mershon, owner of Kenyon Seafood of Murrells Inlet.

      Now, NOAA says it will use a new counting method for recreational saltwater fishing, that takes into account factors not considered before, like fish caught at high-activity locations during various times of the day.

      One local charter boat owner believes it'll be a change for the better.

      "We are not against having limitations on the fish we catch, we just really want to make sure the numbers are accurate and that the guys who run the charter head boat community have a way to make a living," said Cameron Sebastian, owner of Little River Fishing Fleet.

      NOAA officials went back and compared the old way of estimating versus the new way and found out the catch for red snapper, for example, was really 13 percent lower than they first estimated, just as many fishermen suspected. OAA officials went back and compared the old way of estimating versus the new way and found out the catch for red snapper, for example, was really 13 percent lower than they first estimated, just as many fishermen suspected.

      Sebastian said charter fishermen have thousands of dollars in boats and employees on the line and need better than what he calls pie-in-the sky numbers. "It makes it extremely, extremely challenging when they don't have good information to shut us down."

      Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet, who's a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, says only time will tell whether the new method will really be better, but the old way had been around since 1979 and was the target of many complaints.

      The new data will be used in the next assessment of red snapper, due in 2013.