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Feds limit grouper sportfishing

A one-month ban will probably start in 2007, making federal waters off-limits.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published November 17, 2005

FORT WALTON BEACH - Just two weeks after a judge ruled that federal officials could not shut down recreational grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, federal regulators voted Wednesday to do just that.

"This makes no sense to me," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, the state's largest sportfishing lobby. "The decision is completely uncalled for. We will fight it."

On Oct. 31, a federal judge in Fort Myers ruled that a plan by the National Marine Fisheries Service to shut down all recreational grouper fishing - not just overfished red grouper - was "arbitrary, capricious" and "an abuse of discretion."

Judge John E. Steele's decision meant recreational anglers could continue fishing for gag and black grouper.

But on Wednesday, the five-state Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council imposed a one-month ban on all grouper fishing in federal waters, beyond 9 miles offshore in the gulf. The ban will run from Feb. 15 to March 15, the peak of the spawning time for red grouper, but likely won't take effect until 2007 because of the lengthy regulatory process.

The council's decision will be implemented by the Marine Fisheries Service, which says recreational anglers last year caught more than double the red grouper allowed.

Red grouper is closed to commercial and recreational fisherman in federal waters until the end of the year. That ban was imposed in an emergency action this summer by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The state asked the federal government this summer to focus solely on the overfished red grouper stocks and leave black and gag grouper alone.

Commercial fishermen take about 81 percent of the red grouper; recreational anglers catch the rest. The gulf's commercial longline boats, based largely in Madeira Beach, are idle because they filled their quota early this year.

Gag grouper, however, is a shallow-water species that is primarily caught by recreational anglers.

Roy Williams, the Florida representative on the 17-member council, asked his colleagues to reduce the red grouper bag limit from two fish to one fish and leave the fishery open.

But Roy Crabtree, Southeast Regional administrator for the NMFS, said such a move would undermine the rebuilding of the grouper stock.

Unless all three species are closed to fishing, "I don't think you would be better off with a one-month closure," Crabtree said. "It is not going to do much."

Crabtree contended that officials needed to shut down all grouper fishing because recreational anglers, denied access to red grouper, could shift to gag grouper.

The council agreed.

"It is good conservation for red grouper," Crabtree said.

Chris Dorsett of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, said the grouper ban would help reach the target of reducing recreational grouper overfishing in gulf waters by 34 percent.

"It came close to the reduction that they needed to make, but I am concerned about not getting it put in place soon enough for next year," Dorsett said. "I am happy, but it's not quite close enough."

The grouper ban has galvanized sport fisherman in a way not seen since the 1994 state amendment to ban inshore netting.

The recreational fishermen at Wednesday's meeting were shocked by the council's decision.

"I am speechless," said Dennis O'Hern of the Fishing Rights Alliance. "This decision goes against the judge's ruling, the wishes of the state of Florida and thousands of recreational anglers. They have no idea what economic impact this is going to have on our state."

Recreational fisherman James Jones said the closing "will hurt guys like me who fish for fun. You don't get a lot of great days in February or March to fish, but those days we do get, we like to go fishing."

Red grouper still can be caught in state waters, inside the 9-mile mark, though the species generally is found in deeper waters.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified November 17, 2005, 02:01:35]

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