Grand Strand fishermen fear the impact of more catch limits

As charter boat captain John Strickland fills his Sea Spirit fishing boat with diesel fuel at Crazy Sisters Marina in Murrells Inlet, he wonders how the latest round of catch limits on popular fish species will effect his business.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council met in Charleston Tuesday, to consider placing new limits on fish caught off the nation's southeastern coast. The council regulates fishing between 3 miles and 200 miles offshore from North Carolina to Florida.

On the council's agenda were annual catch limits for species including king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, grouper and dolphin. The limits were part of a nationwide effort to prevent overfishing.

Strickland said he's seen how earlier restrictions on species like red snapper and grouper has had an impact on the people who want to charter his boat.

"It's not cheap to go fishing these days with fuel prices and everything else and then, the more you take from them, the less they want to come back," Strickland said. "They just don't want to spend the money."

Strickland said poor fish management in past years just made the problem worse.

"This could have been worked on years ago and now they just want to take it all from you."

In the boat slip next to the Sea Spirit, charter captain Shane Bashor has just come in from taking a family out on his Side Kick boat for a successful trip to catch a shark. His clients are happy with their catch, but Bashor shares Strickland's concern about future catch limits. For one thing, Bashor doesn't trust the information the fishery council uses to determine its catch limits. "I would really be interested to see exactly where those numbers come from," Bashor said.

It's a common sentiment among charter boat owners, who say they understand the need for some fishing limits, but don't see any evidence of overfishing and are distrustful of the fishery council's studies indicating that certain fish populations are declining.

"Some things probably work in cycles out there and just because you might have a slow summer there might be other things going on than overfishing," Bashor said.

Marina supervisor Channing Strickland said boat captains were already struggling through a weak economy. More catch limits only make things worse.

"Why at this particular time we have to have such a hard crush on the fishing industry as far as the restrictions go, is something that I can't understand," Strickland said, "because they're not giving me any statistical data or anything to go by that shows that we're having the declines."

Strickland said previous restrictions on black sea bass caused a dramatic impact on the market, as fishermen were given a quota on the species that was met in just one month.

"When they open it up and set a quota, it's a free-for-all for everybody to go out and hit the market as fast as possible, but then you flood the market out, prices bottom out," Strickland said.

There are strong years for certain species and bad years, Strickland said, but he's not seeing a huge lack of fish for people to catch when he and other boat captains go out.

"Surely there's a decrease in the population of fish, everybody knows that, but we just need to get a better control over the way it's being regulated."

Any action by the fishery council must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.