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FAQ: 2012 Recreational Gulf Gag Grouper Season Changes

Frequently Asked Questions: 2012 Recreational Gulf Gag Grouper Season Changes

Prepared by FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management – March 2012

Why are Gulf gag grouper regulations changing?

Gag grouper is overfished (population is too small) and undergoing overfishing (rate of harvest is higher than population replenishes itself) in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) is required by federal law to end overfishing and rebuild gag grouper.  In August 2011, the Council approved long-term management measures (Amendment 32) that establish a rebuilding plan for gag grouper. The plan will rebuild the gag grouper stock in 10 years or less, with a management goal to reduce gag grouper removals by 53% (including fish that are harvested and fish that die after release).  Amendment 32 will take effect March 12, 2012, and includes changes to the recreational harvest season dates and commercial size limit for gag grouper. Because more than 90% of Gulf gag grouper are harvested off Florida, the Council requested that the FWC approve consistent regulations for Gulf state waters to help rebuild the gag grouper stock.

What is the recreational harvest season for gag grouper in Gulf federal waters (beyond 9 miles from shore)?

Amendment 32 set the recreational harvest season for gag grouper in Gulf federal waters to July 1 through Oct. 31 (keeping the two fish bag limit and 22 inch minimum size limit). Federal rules require for-hire vessels that have federal reef fish permits to follow this season, even in state waters.

Why was July 1 through Oct. 31 chosen for the recreational harvest season? 

July 1 through Oct. 31 was chosen because these dates yielded the greatest number of fishing days and the longest possible harvest season for gag grouper (123 days) without exceeding catch limits.  This also means that the current two fish bag limit would not need to be lowered.

The Council considered several different seasons to achieve the rebuilding goal, including split seasons that would allow fishing in the winter months.  The Council’s Reef Fish Advisory Panel (made up of fishermen and other fishery representatives) recommended a split season that would allow fishing in the winter (Jan. 1 – 31 and Dec. 24 – 31) and summer (June 1 – July 7) and a reduction in the recreational bag limit from two to one fish. This split season would have only been 76 days, but would have accommodated the southwest Florida winter gag fishery and the summer gag fishery in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Other split seasons were considered by the Council, but were all 76 days or less because the seasons occurred during dates when fishing effort for gag has been historically high. During summer 2011, the Council, FWC Commission and majority of the public testimony received indicated that the longest season was preferred.  Also, for-hire and recreational harvesters from northwest Florida preferred to have the gag season roughly coincide with red snapper open season. Some for-hire interests in southwest Florida would have preferred a winter season, but chose to accept the 123-day season.

What is the season for gag grouper harvest in Gulf state waters?

The recreational harvest season for gag grouper in most Gulf state waters will be the same as the federal season: July 1 through October 31 in Gulf state waters (within nine miles from shore) excluding Monroe County. Monroe County follows Atlantic rules for gag grouper.  However, the Commission determined that a April 1, 2012, through June 30, 2012, gag grouper harvest season for Gulf of Mexico state waters offshore of Florida’s Big Bend (Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla, and Franklin counties and including all waters of the Steinhatchee River, Apalachicola Bay and Indian Pass) was warranted.  This area of state waters will be closed to recreational gag grouper harvest for the remainder of the year, including the July 1 – Oct. 31 season, and will remain closed until the season opens in 2013.

Why were just these four counties chosen for the April 1 through June 30 regional season? 

The Commission voted to establish a regional season for Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties to allow fishing opportunities for private recreational anglers in this area when gag grouper are closer to shore and can be safely accessed by smaller boats.  The Commission believes that fishing effort for gag grouper is low in these counties because it is the least densely populated region of Florida’s Gulf Coast. By replacing the July 1 through Oct. 31 season with a shorter but more desirable season in the Big Bend, the Commission hopes to balance the economic and social needs of this region with the conservation needs of gag grouper.

Can charter and for-hire vessels harvest gag grouper during the April 1 through June 30 regional season?

Federal law prohibits federally-licensed for-hire vessels from harvesting gag grouper in state waters when federal waters are closed, even if they are fishing in state waters.  For-hire vessels that do not have federal reef fish permits would be able to harvest gag grouper in this region during the open season.

During the the April 1 through June 30 regional season for Taylor through Franklin counties, can I harvest gag grouper outside this area and land them in the open region?  Can I harvest gag grouper in the open region and land them in a closed area?

No. Harvest and possession of gag grouper would only be permitted in state waters off Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties, including all waters of the Steinhatchee River, Apalachicola Bay and Indian Pass from April 1 through June 30.  This means that gag grouper could only be harvested within this region and could only be landed in this region.  For example, it would be illegal to harvest gag grouper off Dixie County from April 1 through June 30, regardless of where they are landed. It would also be illegal to harvest gag grouper off Taylor County and dock your boat with gag grouper onboard in Dixie County outside the open area.

On July 1st the four-county area closes, but recreational anglers will be able to transit from open federal waters or open state waters through the four-county closed area. On or after July 1st in the four-county region, you cannot stop and fish if you have gag grouper on board your vessel. Vessels possessing gag grouper in the four-county closed area must be in direct and continuous transit, and if stopped and fishing in a closed area it will be prima facie evidence that any gag grouper on board were harvested at the location where the vessel is stopped. Gag grouper season will end October 31, 2012, for all waters outside of the four-county area.

Will the April 1 through June 30 regional season affect the recreational gag grouper season in federal waters?

It is possible that the federal season could be shortened if the April 1 through June 30 regional season in state waters results in a higher than anticipated recreational gag grouper harvest.  The federal rebuilding plan for gag grouper in Amendment 32 establishes annual catch limits (ACLs) for gag grouper for the recreational and commercial sectors.  These ACLs are required by federal law and cannot be exceeded.  Gag grouper harvest from both state and federal waters is included in the ACL and the 123-day federal season was chosen in an effort to keep the overall recreational gag grouper harvest below the ACL. If harvest data indicates that the recreational ACL is going to be met before the end of the July 1 through Oct. 31 season, NOAA Fisheries Service would be required to close recreational harvest in federal waters until the 2013 season. If the ACL is exceeded in 2012, the 2013 federal season could also be shortened to account for the 2012 overage.  Amendment 32 also includes yearly ACL increases as the stock rebuilds. However, if the overall (recreational plus commercial) ACL is exceeded, scheduled ACL increases may not occur.

Why wasn’t the commercial gag grouper season shortened?

Recreational and commercial grouper fisheries are managed differently because commercial and recreational harvesters fish in different areas, target different species and use different fishing techniques. Commercial harvesters are strictly regulated and monitored under a federal Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system in which each harvester is only allowed to harvest a certain amount of grouper per year. When commercial harvesters catch their quota, they must immediately stop fishing for grouper.

Instead of changing the commercial harvest season for gag grouper, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set the commercial gag grouper quota to 86% of the commercial annual catch target (the management goal for amount of commercial grouper harvest) to account for gag grouper that are discarded dead. The Council also reduced the minimum size limit for commercially-caught gag grouper from 24 to 22 inches (which is the same as the recreational minimum size limit). Release mortality of gag grouper is typically higher for the commercial fishery than the recreational fishery because commercial harvesters fish in deeper water and use different handling techniques and gears (like longlines in federal waters). This size limit reduction actually eliminates waste and helps reduce the number of gag grouper that are thrown back dead because 22 and 23 inch grouper that are caught by commercial harvesters will count against the commercial quota rather than be discarded dead. The FWC also reduced the commercial size limit for gag grouper in Gulf state waters to be consistent with this change.