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East Coast’s 4-month grouper closure delayed!

East Coast anglers received a great Christmas surprise on Dec. 19 when news broke that a controversial 4-month closure on grouper fishing had been scrapped – at least for now. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decided not to implement the interim rule in the face of increasingly vocal protests, letters, telephone calls and emails from angry recreational fishermen, charter captains and other fishing-related businesses.

In addition to the outcry from anglers and businesses (a large number of which made themselves heard from the Florida Keys), the NMFS met resistance from the state of Florida and other individual coastal states that did not agree to expedite the interim rule process. The interim rule, which was approved by a split 8-5 vote of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) in September, would have banned all harvest of grouper off

Florida’s East Coast on Jan. 1, 2009 through April 30, 2009. While the federal government has backed off of the four-month closure for now, NMFS scientists continue to claim grouper (and red snapper) numbers are in danger, based on data and stock estimates that anglers say are unreliable and “fatally flawed.”

Anglers contend that NMFS scientists are using unreliable data and stock estimates (from the 1970s) in flawed models that result in regulators setting their target levels for grouper and snapper stocks ridiculously high – perhaps higher than historical abundance.

Meanwhile, anglers, divers and spearfishermen are reporting seeing and catching more fish than they have in 20-plus years. Despite the opposition, the NMFS and Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree are expected to push ahead with proposed permanent rules limiting the harvest of grouper (Amendment 16) and snapper (Amendment 17) in late spring or summer 2009.

“Because most South Atlantic coastal states have not yet responded to NMFS’ request for expedited review of the interim rule under the Coastal Zone Management Act, and one state has explicitly rejected expedited review, it appears unlikely the agency could publish an interim rule earlier than February 2009,” Crabtree wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to the SAFMC.

“A rule published Feb. 1, 2009 would not go into effect until early March – halfway into the Council’s proposed seasonal closure. As a result, the conservation benefits of the interim rule would be greatly diminished,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree and NMFS acknowledged that the proposed January-April closure has already caused economic impacts, as some commercial fishermen are not purchasing bait and supplies, and some charter captains and guides have been unable to book trips.

“NMFS does not believe the limited conservation benefits gained by implementing the rule two months or more behind schedule justify the impacts fishermen are expected to bear while awaiting a decision, particularly when permanent regulations specified in Amendment 16 could be implemented in late spring or early summer. For this reason, NMFS has decided not to implement the interim rule,” Crabtree wrote.

The NMFS and SAFMC’s long-term plan for addressing overfishing and protecting spawning grouper species is undergoing review by the Secretary of the Dept. of Commerce. The permanent grouper rules contained in Amendment 16 are actually more stringent than the interim rule that the NMFS recently abandoned. The interim rule would have allowed 1 gag and 1 black grouper combined within the current 5-grouper bag limit. (Currently anglers may keep two black or gag grouper combined within the 5-fish limit).

However, the permanent rule calls for a lower 3-grouper bag limit with only one gag or black grouper. The proposed permanent rules also includes the same 4-month (Jan. 1 – Apr. 30) closed season for all anglers on all shallow-water grouper (gag, black, red, yellowmouth, tiger, yellowfin grouper, scamp, red hind, rock hind, coney and graysby).

The issue will likely be brought up again at the SAFMC’s March meeting, when anglers are also expecting further rule proposals that could drastically affect snapper fishing. At their December 2008 meeting, the SAFMC delayed new proposed red snapper rules until later in 2009 when the NMFS is expected to implement time and area closures – or even a total closure on red snapper fishing.

Permanent rule changes for vermilion snapper were tentatively approved at a September 2008 SAFMC meeting, but public outcry led to the new rules (including a smaller bag limit and up to a 7-month closure) being put on hold until the stock assessment was reviewed again.

Despite the fact that it appeared the new federal rules would take effect on Jan. 1, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which regulates fishing in state waters (within 3 miles of shore on the Atlantic coast) declined to adopt similar rules at its December meeting.

Instead, much as they have done on other recent federal rules, the FWC plans to pass corresponding rules in state waters once the federal rules are finalized.