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NOAA to set new Gulf grouper rules in January

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) has voted to send new grouper rules (Reef Fish Amendment 30B) to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. Amendment 30B addresses the overfishing of gag and the recovery of red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, and is expected to become effective in late 2009 or early 2010.

In the meantime, the Gulf Council requested that NOAA implement, as quickly as possible, an interim rule for portions of Amendment 30B that pertain to ending overfishing of gag, red snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish. The interim rule, which can only be used to address those provisions that deal specifically with overfishing, is expected to become effective

Jan. 1, 2009, and will put in place temporary regulations until Amendment 30B can be fully implemented. Here’s a rundown of what the interim rule will do:

• Establish a 2-gag recreational bag limit. The aggregate bag limit will remain at five.

• Adjust the recreational closed season for gag to Feb. 1 - March 31. The closed season for black and red grouper will remain Feb. 15 to March 15.

• Establish a 1.32 million pound (mp) commercial quota for gag.

• Require charter boat and headboat operators who possess a Gulf reef fish permit to comply with federal rules for gag, red snapper, amberjack and triggerfish if federal rules are more restrictive than state regulations, regardless of where fish are harvested.

The interim rule will eventually be replaced by Amendment 30B, which establishes a recreational grouper bag limit of 4 fish with a 2 gag and 2 red grouper bag and possession limit. It also includes: a recreational closed season for all shallow-water grouper from Feb. 1 through March 31. A January - April seasonal area closure for all sectors will also be established at the Edges 40 fathom contour, a 390-nautical-square-mile gag spawning region northwest of Steamboat Lumps.

On the commercial side, Amendment 30B reduces the minimum size limit for commercial red grouper to 18 inches and repeals the commercial Feb. 15 to March 15 closed season on gag, black grouper and red grouper.

Amendment 30B also sets total allowable catch (TAC) for both gag and red grouper. The gag TAC will be set at variable levels – 3.38 mp in 2009, 3.62 mp in 2010, and 3.82 mp in 2011, with the red grouper TAC set at 7.57 mp.

Interim allocation of TAC will be set at 61% recreational and 39% commercial for gag, and 24% recreational, 76% commercial for red grouper. The amendment will also establish a 200-pound commercial trip limit for gag or red grouper once 80% of the commercial quota for the applicable species is reached, or projected to be reached. New annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs) for recreational and commercial gag and red grouper means the commercial shallow-water grouper fishery will close when gag, red grouper, or the shallow-water grouper quota is met.

For the recreational sector, if at the end of the fishing year it is determined that the gag or red grouper ACL has been exceeded, then any scheduled increase in the recreational allocation will be canceled.

In addition, the recreational fishing season for shallow-water grouper in the following year will be reduced by the amount necessary to ensure that red grouper or gag target levels are not exceeded for that year.