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Gulf and East Coast grouper anglers face new grouper rules Jan. 1

Grouper fishermen on both coasts of Florida face new grouper rules beginning on Jan. 1, 2009. Both East Coast and Gulf of Mexico offshore anglers will have to comply with new “interim” rules beginning in 2009. Comments on the draft rule may be submitted by going online to: www.regulations.gov until Dec. 29, 2008.

West Coast (Gulf of Mexico) Gulf Coast anglers will no longer be able to keep up to 5 gag grouper per day. A new interim rule will take effect Jan. 1, 2009, and will include:

• A new recreational gag bag and possession limit of 2 per person, per day. The aggregate (total) grouper bag limit will remain at 5. This means anglers can keep 2 gags, 1 red grouper and will have to catch up to two black or scamp grouper to fill their 5-grouper bag limit. However, the state (FWC) plans to pass a rule change allowing anglers fishing in STATE waters to keep 2 red grouper within their 5-grouper bag limit beginning Jan. 1 (see story below).

• A new recreational closed season for GAG from Feb. 1 through March 31. The closed season for BLACK and RED grouper will remain Feb. 15 - March 15.

• Charter boat and headboat operators who possess a Gulf reef fish permit must comply with federal regulations for gag, red snapper, greater amberjack, and gray triggerfish, regardless of where the fish are harvested, if those regulations are more restrictive than state rules.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) has voted to send a permanent rule (Reef Fish Amendment 30B) which deals with gag and red grouper, to the Secretary of Commerce for approval.

In the meantime, the Gulf Council requested that NOAA’s NMFS adopt an interim rule to implement portions of Amendment 30B that pertain to ending overfishing of gag, red snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish.

The interim rule will eventually be replaced by Amendment 30B – which is expected to take effect in late 2009 or early 2010 – which will establish a new recreational grouper aggregate bag limit of 4 fish (with a 2-gag and 2-red grouper bag and possession limit). The new permanent rules will also include a recreational closed season for ALL shallow-water grouper (gag, black and red) from Feb. 1 - March 31 each year.

Amendment 30B will reduces the minimum size limit for commercial red grouper to 18 inches and repeal the commercial Feb. 15 - March 15 closed season on gag, black and red grouper. Instead, a commercial Jan. - April seasonal area closure is established at the Edges 40-fathom contour – a 390-nautical-square-mile gag spawning region northwest of Steamboat Lumps. Amendment 30B will also set total allowable catch (TAC) for both gag and red grouper. The gag TAC will be set at 3.38 million pounds (mp) in 2009, 3.62 mp in 2010 and 3.82 mp in 2011 – with the red grouper TAC set at 7.57 mp. The TAC will be divided between the recreational (61%) and commercial (39%) fisheries on an interim basis for gag, as well as red grouper (24% recreational), (76% commercial).

Finally, Amendment 30B will set annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs) for recreational and commercial grouper fishermen. If at the end of the fishing year it is determined that the gag or red grouper annual catch limit has been exceeded, any scheduled increase in the recreational allocation will be canceled and the TAC will be reduced by the amount necessary to ensure that target levels are not exceeded the next year.

East Coast (South Atlantic) The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) has passed a new interim rule that takes effect Jan. 1, 2009 and closes ALL grouper fishing on the East Coast Jan. - April. The new interim rule includes:

• A new 3-grouper aggregate bag limit that allows anglers to have only 1 gag or black grouper (April - Dec.),

• For-hire captains and crew are no longer allowed to possess a bag limit of grouper when on a paid charter trip. Currently, East Coast anglers are allowed 5 grouper per person, although no more than 2 fish may be gag or black grouper, individually or combined.

The 5-grouper bag limit includes: misty, red, scamp, snowy (no more than 1), speckled hind (1 per vessel per trip), tiger, warsaw (1 per vessel per trip), yellowedge, yellowfin and yellow-mouth. All must be at least 24 inches. Purchase and sale is prohibited in March and April.

Numerous anglers, charter captains and fishing-related businesses have objected to the new rules. FWC staff opposed several of the new measures, focusing objections on the 4-month closed season, due to the impact on Florida’s anglers and economy.