Where are the fish?

An introduction to federal commercial fishing regulations in the South Atlantic Region.

By: Alana Harrison

If you have visited Hatteras Island this summer you may have noticed the extreme shortage of local fish. Anyone with a stake in fishing will tell you that this is the worse fishing they’ve ever seen.

So, where are the fish? There is no shortage  but rather government regulations that have led to the closure of our most prominent fisheries.

Gone are the days of an unregulated industry that brought prosperity to many. Now there are strict rules regulating the commercial fishing industry in the United States. The industry is managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) within National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Department of Commerce aka bureaucracy at its best.

When Congress passed the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, it extended the U.S. jurisdiction of fisheries to 200 miles and created a new form of regional government through eight regional fishery management councils. These councils are responsible for developing fishery management plans to manage fishery resources within federal waters.

In 1996, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) to protect marine fish stocks with requirements to prevent and stop overfishing, minimize bycatch, and protect habitat. This advanced when President Bush signed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006.

This law introduced several new programs including the mandate of annual catch limits and accountability measures to end overfishing and widespread market-based fishery management through limited access programs.

Prior to the passing of the SFA, fisheries were managed through annual quotas. These quotas were large that they were never filled so the fisheries were never closed.

NMFS conducted a stock assessment and concluded that several fisheries were being overfished. To address this a new management system was established: annual catch limits (ACL). Annual catch limits were created to end and prevent overfishing, and continues to be successful.

How do these work? Federal dealers must submit reports on the fish they buy from fisherman, these landings are put against the quota. When the quota is anticipated to be filled it is closed until the NMFS has received all dealer reports and has a final count on the quota. After this the quota either remains closed or is temporarily reopened until the quota is met.

How do these regulations affect the consumer that comes into Harbor House to buy some fish? Hatteras is in the South Atlantic Region, which is managed by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC).

The South Atlantic Region is responsible for the conservation and management of fish stocks in the Atlantic from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to Florida. In order to purchase federally managed species from vessels a federal dealer permit is required.

Harbor House Seafood is the only seafood market on Hatteras Island that has a federal dealer permit.

Most of our fisheries have met their quotas for the season and have been closed, therefore it is prohibited to harvest and/or possess, purchase, and sale. The species that we target are snowy grouper, golden tilefish, blueline tilefish, and dolphin (mahi-mahi).

For example, mahi-mahi has filled its commercial ACL for the first time ever. The ACL is 1,157,001 lb whole weight, it was closed on June 30, 2015 with reported landings of 1,146,323, filling 99.08% of the quota. Therefore, we are unable to fish for mahi-mahi until the season reopens on January 1, 2016.

Like many government programs, the ACL system has its flaws and these need to be addressed within the South Atlantic region, but from the stock assessments released by NMFS, the rebuilding plans seem to be working.

For example, snowy grouper has an ACL of 82,900 lb gutted weight, 83,569 lb were reported and the fishery closed on June 30, 2015. Snowy grouper has been overfished since the late 1980s, in recent years the SAFMC has done intensive rebuilding and has been successful.

Two weeks ago they announced the increase of the Annual catch limit and the reopening of the snowy grouper fishery on August 20, 2015. While reports show the rebuilding of snowy grouper we need to remain cautious while fishing.

Like many other offshore reef fish, snowy grouper are protogynous hermaphrodites, changing from females to males as fish attain larger sizes. This means, the smaller fish are the breeders (females) while the larger fish are males and no longer reproducing.

We must be mindful of breeding habits and target larger fish so we are not wiping out the breeding stock, this is crucial to maintain a sustainable fishery.

Why do you care about these regulations? If you are passionate about eating fresh, local fish this is a wonderful way to learn what is open and closed. If you go into a seafood market and they tell you that they have fresh local red snapper but you know that it is closed, you can make an informed decision before purchasing.

Just like produce, fish have seasons which helps prevent overfishing and encourages sustainability.

Additional resources:

If you are interested in learning what fish are currently open here is the link for the 2015 South Atlantic Commercial Landings:


South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council: anything and everything to know about the South Atlantic region.



Office, Southeast Regional. “S. Atlantic Commercial ACL Homepage : Southeast Regional Office.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2015.

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “About SAFMC.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2015.