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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A new federal rule has angered fishermen in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The rule, which took effect today, is a ban on fishing for red snapper. That's one of the most popular saltwater fish. Federal agencies and environmental groups say that in the South Atlantic, the red snapper is in trouble. And along with the ban, officials propose temporarily closing a huge area to virtually all fishing.

NPR's Greg Allen has the story.

GREG ALLEN: To people who don't fish or live in the Southeast, it might seem like a lot of fuss over one species. But in fishing communities like St. Augustine, Florida, the red snapper is more than just a fish. It's the reason thousands of anglers come here each year to fish on their own or to go out with charter boat captains like Robert Johnson.

Captain ROBERT JOHNSON: In all honesty, I can tell you that snapper fishing is better today than it was 10 years ago.

ALLEN: Robert Johnson has fished for red snapper here, off the eastern coast of Florida, for nearly 30 years. When his charter business slows down, he also fishes for them commercially. He just returned from a day trip where he and his mate used hook and line to catch nearly 100 red snapper, now packed on ice. Johnson reaches into a cooler and pulls one out.

Capt. JOHNSON: He's probably 24, 25 inches, about six, seven pounds. That's about an average size snapper. We do catch 20 and 30-pound fish, though.

ALLEN: That's a key point. Red snapper can live to 50 years old and grow to 20 pounds or more. Fish that old and big are very rare, though, a clear indication, scientists say, of how much they've been overfished. Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the population of red snapper off the Atlantic Coast is just three percent of what it was 60 years ago. Because of that, the service has put in place a six-month interim ban on fishing for red snapper with an option to extend it further.

Regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Southeast is Roy Crabtree. He says the science leaves little doubt the population of red snapper in the South Atlantic has been severely depleted.

Dr. ROY CRABTREE (Regional Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service): I think the only real debate is the extent of the overfishing. But I don't believe there is a whole lot of scientific debate about whether the stock is undergoing overfishing or overfished.

ALLEN: Robert Johnson and others in the recreational fishing industry question the methodology used to estimate the red snapper population. Their doubts are supported by the National Research Council, which has called into question the government's process for estimating catches and fish populations. Johnson believes that while red snapper have been overfished, limits on catches have done a lot in recent years to help rebuild the species.

Capt. JOHNSON: They still keep claiming we're fishing at eight times the sustainable rate, and I just don't see that being true. If that was the case, then we would see the stock in our catch per unit effort, the amount of fish we're catching per trip would fall. It would not be consistently the same over the last 10 years and it definitely wouldn't be getting better.

ALLEN: For Robert Johnson, there's a lot at stake. He says at least 60 percent of his customers come out to fish for red snapper or other bottom species like grouper, also now off-limits. And even more alarming than the red snapper ban is another proposal now being considered. It would close some 10,000 square miles of the Atlantic, from North Carolina to Florida, to virtually all fishing. Johnson says that will likely put him and the two dozen other charter captains here in St. Augustine out of business and take a toll on the restaurants, hotels and others in town who benefit from the influx of anglers.

Holly Binns with the Pew Environment Group's campaign to end overfishing in the Southeast says people who want to fish will still have other options.

Ms. HOLLY BINNS (Pew Environment Group): I think it's important to keep in mind that 80 percent of what recreational fishermen caught in the waters off the coast of these four states last year will still be open for fishing.

ALLEN: Binns concedes, however, that communities in areas like St. Augustine that depend on red snapper will be the hardest hit. That's something Dave Workman already knows.

Mr. DAVE WORKMAN (Owner, Strike Zone): I can get sentimental real quick about this. My father started taking me fishing at six years old. It was a big deal. I mean, it's a legacy. And they're talking about completely shutting down fishing completely.

ALLEN: Workman owns the Strike Zone, a fishing outfitter in Jacksonville that carries everything from reels and tackle to kayaks. He says customers have already stopped buying fishing tackle, and he expects business to get much worse once the red snapper ban goes into effect. Like others in the industry, Workman thinks the government has greatly underestimated the ban's economic impact.

Mr. WORKMAN: The total amount is - it'd be $3 million for the state of Florida. And they said 10 percent of that will be the tackle retailers. That's $300,000. Between my two stores, it'll cost more than that in the yearly sales.

ALLEN: A group called the Recreational Fishing Alliance has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the red snapper ban from taking effect on January 4th as planned. Federal regulators may decide whether to approve the larger area ban when it meets in March. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in Congress from coastal districts is working on a bill that would require federal regulators to consider the impact on local economies before ordering fishery closings in the future.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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