Analysis

Southeast Leaders Make Major Move to Protect Spawning Fish in U.S. Waters

Limited-fishing zones could help boost some species after 11 to 2 vote

Creole Wrasse in the Dry Tortugas National Park© Jiangang Luo

This protected area in the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve provides safe habitat that helps fish populations thrive.

Fish may soon have some newly protected places to spawn in U.S. waters of the South Atlantic thanks to a measure approved today by fishery leaders.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policy in federal waters from North Carolina to east Florida, voted 11 to 2 to protect five locations off Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina that range from 3 to 5 square miles each. Fishing will be allowed at the surface but will be prohibited in deeper waters where snappers and groupers gather to breed. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker must give final approval before the new spawning special management zones take effect.

The vote is a victory for Southeast fishermen and fish populations because dedicating safe places for species to spawn should boost their numbers, especially for imperiled fish, such as speckled hind and warsaw grouper, whose populations have plummeted to dangerously low levels. The measure also could aid the recovery of popular but struggling species, such as red grouper and snowy grouper, which need more time than some other types of fish to reach their best spawning years.

The plan to create the spawning zones follows years of collaborative work by scientists, fishermen, conservationists, and fishery leaders who used existing and new research, together with decades of experience on the water, to identify the best areas to target and the most effective strategies to protect spawning fish. This cooperative effort set the project on a course for success and will continue as the sites are monitored to measure their performance.

Protecting spawning sites has worked in other places in the Southeast. For example, after fishing was prohibited in the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve in the Florida Keys, yellowtail and mutton snapper, as well as previously overfished species such as red grouper, increased in abundance and size inside the reserve. Now, ocean currents are transporting fish larvae to other areas throughout the region, which could replenish nearby fishing grounds.

The Pew Charitable Trusts will continue working to promote robust fish populations and healthy marine ecosystems that form the backbone of strong coastal economies. Learn more about Pew’s South Atlantic Ocean conservation project.

Holly Binns directs Pew’s efforts to protect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. South Atlantic Ocean, and the U.S. Caribbean.

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