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New grouper rules hit hard!

How big of an impact will new grouper rules adopted by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have on Florida’s economy and those who make a living fishing offshore?

The effect on Florida’s tourism revenues and fishing-related economy remains to be seen, now that federal and state officials have lowered the daily bag limit on gag grouper to just 2 fish and the total (aggregate) daily bag limit on all grouper to 4 per person.

The final rule – known as Amendment 30B to the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico – was published in the Federal Registry on

April 16 and took effect on May 18, 2009.

NMFS received 30 public comments on the proposed rule, including 27 comments from individuals, two from government agencies and one from a non-governmental entity. For a summary of the comments and the NMFS responses, (click here)

The rule will directly affect 1,692 vessels permitted to operate in the Gulf of Mexico reef fish “for-hire” fishery (operating as headboats or charterboats) as well as the Gulf of Mexico commercial reef fish industry.

Some individual vessels may operate as both types of operations at different times, according to NOAA. Some 76 vessels participate in the federal headboat logbook program. Several entities own multiple for-hire permits and at least one entity is believed to own as many as 12 permits, according to NMFS.

According to National Association of Charterboat Operators (NACO) President Capt. Bob Zales II, who also represents the Panama City Boatmen Association and the Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen (CCGF), there are actually fewer than 1,500 federally-permitted reef fish vessels in the Gulf, including headboats.

“It IS known how many headboat operate in the Gulf, as they have to participate in the Beauford Headboat Survey. The number is around 80, give or take,” Zales said. “The problem is that there are several definitions for headboat, charter boat and guide boat, which is a problem we have tried to address for over 10 years. The NMFS has one definition, while each state has another, so basically there is no standard.”

“Headboats charge by the person (head), generally operate from a fixed, well-known dock that can be easily found and also generally advertise their service. The NMFS says they ‘believe’ one entity owns 12 permits, but their database should clearly have this info. These permits have been required since the mid-1980’s. If they don’t have the information it’s no wonder they are struggling so much with fishery regulations.”

According to the NMFS, the average charterboat is estimated to generate approximately $77,000 (2005 dollars) in annual revenues, while the comparable figure for an average headboat is approximately $404,000.

NMFS says the new rule is expected to reduce the net operating revenues of commercial vessels by $5.3 million (in 2005 dollars) over the period 2008-2013 or an average annual loss of $880,000. “As a result of the final action on grouper, the for-hire sector is projected to experience a loss in net income of approximately $405,000 to $794,000 per year. If these losses were distributed equally across all the 1,692 for-hire vessels in the fishery, the resulting loss would be between $239 and $469 per vessel,” NMFS states.

Zales strongly disagrees. “The statement that the loss of income will be between $239 and $469 per vessel is completely and totally ridiculous. That’s less than the cost of one trip! Now you can only fish for red snapper for 75 days, you can only keep 2 gags and 2 reds and we have a 2-month closure. How many less trips do you think we will be running this year?” he asked. “Trips in Panama City are down more than 70% from last year. I suspect this is far more than $469 in losses per vessel,” Zales said.

NMFS admits some for-hire vessels in Florida are likely more dependent on grouper than other vessels due to where they fish and client preferences and thus may be more severely affected by the final action.

“There are almost 1,000 federally-permitted vessels in Florida alone. The impact will be greatest for the vessels in Florida because almost 95% of the grouper are landed in Florida,” NMFS states.

“The bottom line on this latest information produced by the NMFS is that they produce what data they need to justify their actions, plain and simple. No one believes any of this data is accurate except for some within the NMFS,” Zales added.

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