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Red grouper stocks rebound - but wait

The bad news: Gag grouper are down. Recreational anglers face a one-month ban.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN and TERRY TOMALIN
Published February 7, 2007


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Finally, some good grouper news.

Red grouper stocks, long perceived by regulators to be over-fished, have rebounded to nearly complete health in the Gulf of Mexico, government scientists say.

This is good news for diners. In 2004 and 2005, federal regulators shut down the commercial fleet and wiped out fresh grouper sandwiches for months to protect red grouper.

Recreational anglers also should applaud. Years of tighter red grouper restrictions could eventually ease a bit.

But as always in fisheries management, nothing is simple.

Recent data indicate that gag grouper, the gulf's other major grouper species, are now in serious trouble. Because gag and reds swim together, people fishing for one species also kill the other, regulators said Tuesday. Relax red grouper restrictions too quickly and gags may suffer.

"Those two species represent 85 percent of the commercial shallow water catch and 95 percent of recreational catch grouper," said Stu Kennedy, biologist for the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council. "They are linked at the hip."

Beginning next week, recreational anglers will be banned from all grouper fishing in federal waters for a month. Commercial fishermen have faced a Feb. 15 to March 15 closure for several years, but this is a first for the recreational sector.

"Overfished" red grouper were the original justification. Now, a shortage of gag grouper is to blame.

Florida, which often follows the federal government's lead on fishing rules, did not impose the one-month closure in state waters, which extend from shore to 9 miles out in the gulf.

Most grouper are caught in federal waters, though they often come closer to shore during winter.

People who depend on grouper for fun and livelihoods aren't pleased with the federal ban.

Dave Bayes, manager of Dogfish Tackle in Seminole, figures he will lose one-fifth of his business during the one-month closure. Grouper rods and reels are his best sellers.

"The economic impact is huge, when you start taking out all the recreational fishermen. People coming down from the north want to go out and catch grouper," Bayes said Tuesday. "These guys spend $1,000 a day for a boat and want to come back with grouper. "

Spokesmen for recreational and commercial fishermen acknowledge that some restrictions on gag may be necessary.

But their already shaky confidence in federal "stock assessment" models was rattled further by details in the red grouper report, which passed its final major review last week and will be formally presented in March at the next gulf management council meeting.

The assessment showed that red grouper reproduction was stronger than average in 1996 and huge in 1999. This created millions and millions of baby fish that could grow up to be mommies, daddies, sandwiches and piccattas.

But those fish were too small to be counted during the previous red grouper stock assessment, completed in 2001.

Not realizing that young grouper had surged, regulators continued to tighten restrictions years after those babies were born and the stock was rapidly rebuilding.

Two years ago, the National Marine Fisheries Services, using emergency powers, lowered the maximum red grouper catch for recreational anglers from five fish to two, and later to one.

When they also tried to halt recreational gag grouper fishing to protect reds, the Florida chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association successfully sued to overturn that rule.

"This whole situation has gotten out of hand," said Ted Forsgren, director of the group. Regulators "over-reacted. They should have looked at what the trend showed before they took such radical action," he said.

In November 2004 and October 2005, regulators shut down all commercial grouper fishing because the fleet had exceeded its red grouper quota. Mexican imports filled the void.

"They caused severe economic impact on our industry because of shortcomings in these models," said Bobby Spaeth, who owns the Tampa Bay area's largest seafood house as well as commercial boats.

Dennis O'Hern, director of the Fishing Rights Alliance, said next week's grouper closure should be suspended, saying preliminary data about troubled gags also are flawed.

"This is going to have $50-million impact on the state," O'Hern said.

Kennedy, the federal biologist, said the gulf management council might lift the one-month federal closure in 2008, but not until it gains more information about gag and figures out how to regulate both red and gag with one set of rules.

The council could also ease the commercial red grouper quota and possibly raise the one-fish red bag limit on the recreational side, he said, though such rule changes typically take a year or more of study and public hearings.

"They are going to have to keep some of this stuff in place," Kennedy said. "You can't open season. The stock could go right back down."

[Last modified February 7, 2007, 12:25:12]


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