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Federal regulators may cut gag fishing in the gulf by 45 percent.
By STEVE NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 30, 2008
[Bill Serne | Times (2006)]
ST. PETERSBURG -- Federal regulators took preliminary steps Tuesday to reduce gag grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent, a severe cutback that could cripple commercial fisherman and the charter boat industry.
The proposed restrictions would close down recreational grouper fishing for three months in the winter, just when tourists arrive.
Commercial fisherman would face a quota on gag for the first time, with limits tight enough to shut down the entire grouper fleet every year by October or so -- forcing restaurants and consumers to rely on imports.
The cuts would spill over to other grouper species as well, because grouper swim together, and it's impossible to protect one species without inadvertently cracking down on others.
"This will cost the state of Florida $300-million in direct expenditures,'" said Dennis O'Hern, director of a recreational advocacy group called the Fishermen's Rights Alliance.
With a bag limit of only one gag and only nine months to fish for any kind of grouper, anglers will not sink $20,000 or $30,000 into offshore boats and spend hundreds of dollars in fuel to go bottom fishing, O'Hern said. Tourists will not spend $1,000 to hire a charter boat.
"This is going to kill us," said Tarpon Springs charter boat captain Ed Walker. Migratory fish like king mackerel, cobia and tarpon hang out in warmer southern waters during the winter, he said. Red snapper, another popular offshore bottom fish, is already under tight restriction because of dwindling stocks.
"Essentially they have left us nothing to fish for during the peak tourist season," Walker said.
Federal law leaves regulators little choice. Biological studies indicate that the gulf's gag grouper stock is being fished at unsustainable levels. Regulators are required to impose restrictions to protect the fish.
"It will impact some fishermen, no question," said Roy Crabtree, administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service's Southeastern Region. "But the long-term results of all these measures is that we will have an economic gain if the stocks rebound."
Though the gulf holds dozens of grouper species, gag and red grouper are the two most important. Gag is the preferred target of recreational anglers. It migrates close to shore and even into Tampa Bay during the winter, which gives people with smaller boats a chance to catch it when weather cooperates.
Commercial fishermen have historically caught more red grouper, but gag has made up about one-third of the catch in recent years. Restaurants often charge a premium for gag because many people think it tastes and flakes better than red grouper. Menus often label gag as "black grouper" because it sounds better.
Though some grouper are caught in the Atlantic Ocean, most are caught in the relatively shallow water off Florida's West Coast. When federal biologists decided about two years ago that gag stocks were in trouble, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council began to study how best to cut back.
Tuesday's action was a vote of the council's Reef Fish Management Committee. The full council will hear public comment today and then vote to accept the committee's recommendation in full or tweak it. The council then plans to accept written comments for a few months and impose final rules at its April meeting, Crabtree said.
Here is a rundown of the proposed changes:
-Recreational anglers could not bottom fish for grouper from Jan. 15 through April 15, which spans the peaks of both the red and gag grouper spawning seasons.
-During other months, recreational anglers would be limited to three grouper per person, per trip, down from the current "bag limit" of five. Only one of those grouper could be a gag.
-Commercial fisherman would face a new gag quota of 1.2-million pounds in 2008, which would rise slightly in subsequent years as the stock rebuilds.
That's a 45 percent reduction from average yearly landings of 2-million pounds recorded from 1986 though 2005, which matches the council's overall reduction goal.
In 1998, however, commercial gag landings jumped when many of the best fishermen figured out ways to target the highly prized gags. Between 1998 and 2005, gag landings averaged 2.6-million pounds, raising the prospect that the fleet could hit the proposed 1.2-million pound quota by summer and put a halt to all grouper fishing.
To counter that, the proposed rules are designed to ease into a gag-driven shutdown. When 80 percent of the gag quota is landed, commercial boats would have to limit their gag haul on any single trip to no more than 10 percent of their overall grouper catch.
That would give the fleet more time to fill its red grouper quota, which the proposed rules would increase from about 5.3-million pounds to 5.7-million.
Even so, federal biologists estimate that the gag quota will force the fleet to halt all grouper fishing sometime in October, judging by landings recorded in 2004 and 2005. Combined with an existing annual shutdown between Feb. 15 and March 15, that would leave about nine months for commercial grouper fishing and fresh Florida grouper in restaurants.
If the bite falls off dramatically, as it did in 2006 and 2007, it is possible the fleet could continue to bring in grouper all year -- just not much of it.
The restrictions would apply to federal waters, which begin at nine miles offshore. Except during the winter, most gulf grouper are caught on hard bottom, wrecks, reefs and ledges that are at least nine miles out.
The state of Florida, which controls recreational fishing closer to shore, typically matches federal regulations. If the state does not mimic the proposed restrictions, Crabtree said, the federal government would have to compensate by imposing tighter limits in federal waters.
Have an opinion?
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will take public comment on grouper from 1:30 to 4:30 today at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center, 12600 Roosevelt Blvd., St. Petersburg.
[Last modified January 29, 2008, 23:12:07]