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Interim Rule Takes Effect Jan. 1, 2009

New Gulf grouper rules: 2 gags, 2 reds, 2-month closure

Despite being presented with common-sense data showing reduced fishing effort due to soaring fuel prices and testimony from a Canadian biologist disputing controversial stock assessment data, the Gulf Council is moving ahead with new Gulf grouper rules slashing the number of gags recreational anglers can keep and doubling the current one-month closed season to two months.

The Gulf Council also created a new marine reserve consisting of 390 square miles between the Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps reserves closed to all fishing Jan. - April each year.

Pushed by the “best available science” provided by NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and under stringent regulatory guidelines contained in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, at their Aug. 14 meeting in Key Largo the Gulf Council voted to send Reef Fish Amendment 30B, which deals with gag and red grouper, to the Secretary of Commerce for implementation. Amendment 30B is expected to become effective in late 2009 or early 2010. In the meantime, the Council requested that NOAA pass an interim rule to implement portions of Amendment 30B that pertain to ending overfishing of gag, red snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish as quickly as possible.

The interim rule is expected to become effective by Jan. 1, 2009, and will put in place temporary regulations until Amendment 30B can be fully implemented. The interim rule will: • Set the recreational gag bag and possession limit to 2 per person, per day. The aggregate bag limit remains at five. • Extend the recreational closed season for gag from Feb. 1 - March 31. The closed season for black and red grouper remains Feb. 15 - March 15. • Charter boat and headboat operators who possess a Gulf reef fish permit must comply with federal regulations for those reef fish species experiencing overfishing (gag, red snapper, greater amberjack, and gray triggerfish), regardless of where the fish are harvested, if those regulations are more restrictive than state regulations.

The interim rule will eventually be replaced by Amendment 30B, which establishes a recreational grouper aggregate of 4 fish with a 2 gag and 2 red grouper bag and possession limit.

On the commercial side, Amendment 30B reduces the minimum size inches and repeals the commercial Feb. 15 - March 15 closed season on gag, black grouper and red grouper. Instead, a commercial January - 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 also sets total allowable catch (TAC) for both gag and red grouper. The gag TAC will be set at variable levels – 3.38 mp (million pounds) 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 between the recreational and commercial fisheries will be set at 61% recreational and 39% commercial for gag and 24% recreational, 76% commercial for red grouper.

Finally, the amendment sets annual catch limits (ACLs) and accountability measures (AMs) for recreational and commercial gag and red grouper, and for the commercial shallow-water grouper aggregate. For the commercial sector this means the 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 annual catch limit (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.

And, in a ruling that has captains calling for the elimination of federal charter/headboat permits (approximately 1,400), charter boats with federal fish permits will now have to comply with federal fishing rules, even while fishing in state waters, despite the fact that state rules are sometimes less restrictive. Federal waters start nine miles offshore of the Florida coast.

“The decision to make captains with federal charter/headboat permits comply with the more restrictive federal rules, even when fishing in state waters, is strictly retaliatory due to the fact that Florida and Texas stood up to the feds and refused to adopt the lower limits,” stated Capt. Bob Zales, who represents recreational anglers and charter boats through the Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen (CCGF).

“There was no analysis provided on what the biological impact, benefit or not, would be for creating a new marine reserve to be closed for four months (Jan. - April),” Zales added. He pointed out that the new rules mean recreational fishermen would not be able to fish for grouper in February and March, while commercial fishermen can fish year-round (except in the new closed area from January through April).

“We were not provided any analysis as to the benefit of this decision, which most of us see as none, because the commercial fishermen will simply fish all other areas except the 40-fathom box for 12 months out of the year, including areas where recreational anglers normally fish during that January-April period they can’t fish in the closed area."

The new closed area is a parallelogram-shaped area that spans 37 nautical miles along the 40-fathom contour. According to federal catch data – pulled from the “fatally-flawed” Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey (MRFSS) – gag grouper has been overfished since 1998, and a plan to fix it is past due under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Recreational and commercial fishing groups hired a Canadian scientist – Dr. Thomas Kenchington – who refuted the federal data, but the NMFS simply updated their stock assessment data and changed the proposal from a one-gag daily bag limit to two.

The longer closed season is what has already-struggling charter captains the most concerned, as the extended closure will significantly affect their ability to book clients during February and March. Fishing groups remain convinced that high gas prices and the poor economy have already reduced gag grouper harvest considerably. Federal fisheries managers say new stock assessments in 2009 will indicate if new catch limits are allowing stocks to rebound so restrictions can be eased.

You can still give input on the new rules until Sept. 22, as NOAA is seeking public comments on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Gulf of Mexico grouper fishery. To comment or review the new rules, go online to: www.gulfcouncil.org or www.regulations.gov or contact Peter Hood at NOAA by phone (727-824-5305) or email [email protected]