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Commercial harvest of yellowtail to close Sept. 11 in South Atlantic waters

Eat up while you can. In the next week or so, yellowtail snapper — a delectable and pricey seafood treat — is going to become scarce and more expensive in South Florida and a lot of other places.

For the first time, the commercial harvest of yellowtail in the South Atlantic from the Carolinas to the Keys is set to close just after midnight on Sept. 11. And unless federal fisheries managers act quickly, catching and selling the tasty reef fish could be prohibited in the region through the end of the year.

The closure — which applies to federal waters (more than three miles from shore) — was announced just before the Labor Day holiday weekend by NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for managing saltwater fishing in the U.S. It came as a shock to commercial fishers, seafood markets and restaurants in South Florida.

“What we have is our own personal 9/11, and the terrorist happens to be the federal government,” said Tom Hill, president of Key Largo Fisheries, which sells yellowtail to about 300 retailers, restaurants and other businesses from Key West to Fort Lauderdale. “This caught everybody off guard. It puts everybody in a scramble.”

Hill and other seafood dealers say the closure will put some fishermen out of work and drive up the price of yellowtail, which isn’t cheap at about $12 per pound for a fillet.

What triggered the closure is a little-known provision of a federal law known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act that took effect earlier this year. The law requires federal fisheries managers to set annual catch limits for many popular saltwater species in order to prevent overfishing, which means catching fish faster than they can reproduce. On the recommendation of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries set the annual catch limit of yellowtail at 1,142,589 pounds for commercial fishers and 1,031,286 pounds for recreational anglers. Those allocations were based on historical landings for the species, which come mainly from the Keys. Last week, NOAA announced it estimated that the commercial catch limit would be reached by Sept. 11 and the fishery would have to close until Jan. 1.

The closure does not include the recreational fishery for yellowtails, nor does it apply in Gulf of Mexico waters. However, about three-quarters of the yellowtail harvested commercially comes from the reefs of the South Atlantic while the Gulf accounts for about 25 percent or less.

John Golden, who runs the retail market at Captain Jim Hanson’s Seafood Restaurant and Market in North Miami, said he’s not sure of his company’s next move.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do. People are going to need yellowtail,” he said. “It’s going to go sky high. We’ll have to import fish from Honduras. It doesn’t make sense.”

Jose Sanchez, seafood manager at Delaware Chicken Farm & Seafood Market in Hollywood, just bought 300 pounds of yellowtail from the Keys which he figures to be gone after the middle of next week. Sanchez reflected glumly on the prospect of buying imported yellowtail.

“Even if I can get imported fish, it’s not going to look as nice,” Sanchez said. “Really, you’re pushing your customers away. The price is going to go up. It’s going to hurt. We don’t know how much business we’re going to lose.”

But federal and state fisheries officials say there’s a good chance the yellowtail closure may not stay in effect through the end of the year because of a new yellowtail stock assessment just completed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The stock assessment says basically that yellowtail are in good shape and in no immediate danger of being overfished. FWC saltwater fisheries administrator Jessica McCawley will ask the South Atlantic Council, meeting next week in Charleston, S.C., to quickly convene its scientific and statistical committee to review the new report. If the committee concurs that yellowtail can support continued harvest, then the council can adopt an emergency rule to reopen it. The reopening would have to get the blessing of NOAA Fisheries, which is likely to happen if the stock numbers look good, according to Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries’ southeast regional administrator.

“Sometime in the second half of October is about as good as we could do,” Crabtree said. “We have a process to go through. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure the catch limit is set at the appropriate level.”

In the meantime, the price of yellowtail probably will rise by $1 to $2 per pound, said Gary Graves, vice president of Keys Fisheries, a wholesaler, retailer and restaurant in Marathon.

And also in the meantime, fishermen will lose their jobs, according to captain Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

Said Kelly: “Here, for the sake of a couple of months, we’re taking one of the healthiest fisheries in the nation and shutting it down, resulting in significant and irreparable financial harm to our local economy.”