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On the decline

Once plentiful, red grouper now are more difficult to find than gag grouper.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 21, 2001


THE GULF OF MEXICO -- The storm on the horizon didn't hinder the crew's quest for a keeper red grouper.

"We are marking fish," Brad Kenyon told his fellow anglers. "Now all we have to do is get them to eat."

Four-foot rollers and funnel clouds would send many fishermen running for port. But Kenyon cherishs those late days of summer when the red grouper move into shallow water and within reach of most recreational anglers.

On a good day, in years past, Kenyon could pretty much guarantee his passengers their limit of grouper. Recently, however, the Tarpon Springs angler is hard-pressed to bring home a legal red.

"They just haven't been as plentiful in recent years as they once were," Kenyon said. "We had a red tide a few years back that hit everything up to 50 miles out. The fish never recovered."

Ask the National Marine Fisheries Service why local anglers catch fewer red grouper today than 10 years ago and it will tell you the species is officially "overfished."

Commercial longlines catch two out of three red grouper landed in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal fishery managers have considered everything from closed seasons to "no fish" zones to help rebuild the stocks. A final decision should be made early next year.

"When we develop management rules, our strategy is to throw all the ideas out there and then see what people have to say about them," said Peter Hood, a biologist with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "But just because something has been discussed doesn't mean the council will adopt it."

Veteran grouper diggers such as Kenyon, who have long depended on reds to carry them through the dog days of summer, know something must be done if the species is to return to historic numbers.

"I'd go for a higher size limit," Kenyon said. "Make it 22 inches -- the same as gag grouper. I think most recreational fishermen are willing to do their share."

But federal fishery managers will most likely address the problem by limiting the commercial sector. Records show that over the past 15 years, commercial red grouper numbers have dropped steadily -- from 7.3-million pounds in 1986 to 4.6-million pounds in 1998.

Kenyon believes the best way to increase the recreational catch rate is to move the commercial fishermen further offshore. Currently, commercial longline boats are required to fish outside the 20-fathom line.

The new rules, if adopted, could push the longliners anywhere from the 30- to 50-fathom line. The commercial fishermen say that would put them out of business.

Hundreds of recreational and commercial fishermen attended a public hearing in Madeira Beach earlier this summer to voice their concerns over the proposed regulations. That matter will be discussed when the Gulf Council meets again in December, but a final decision isn't expected until next March.

In the meantime, Kenyon and his fellow recreational anglers will continue to fish offshore and catch their limit of gags, which is now the most popular member of the grouper family.

Records show that recreational fishermen catch about twice as many gags as reds.

"It used to be the other way around," Kenyon said. "We would catch the gags in the spring and the fall, but reds were always our summer fish."

But on the hard bottom off Tarpon Springs, a pinfish or grunt will still scare up a keeper or two. It took Kenyon about four hours to catch eight legal grouper before the storm cut short his fishing day. Two of the eight were reds.

It was a good day by anybody's standards. But Kenyon knew it could be better.

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