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NMFS Slams Door on Recreational Grouper Fishers

Questionable data trigger bag limit cuts and two-month Gulf of Mexico season closure.

“A massive blunder,” is what Coast-al Conservation Association Florida called a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) “emergency rule” that cripples recreational grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

We agree.

The temporary rule, effective August 9, 2005, through Jan 23, 2006, reduces the Gulf Coast recreational bag limit of red grouper to one fish; cuts the overall grouper bag to three; and—most shocking—closes the recreational grouper fishery November 1 through the end of the year.

All this comes because of a contentious blip in statistics.

Red grouper are no longer classified as “overfished,” which means that research indicates that a viable breeding stock exists. But a 2002 stock assessment showed that overfishing is occurring, which means that at the present rate of landings the species may decline below a viable number of breeders. Thus, NMFS developed a rebuilding plan based on an 81 to 19 percent commercial to recreational harvest ratio. The trouble came when recent Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) data showed a soaring increase in recreational catches of red grouper in 2004. The increase put the recreational fleet 130 percent over their allotment, triggering an unusually rapid response from federal fisheries managers.

Captain Ralph Allen, who runs a fleet of charterboats in Punta Gorda, echoed the sentiments of many observers: “If the rec landings doubled, I would've heard somebody say they were catching a lot of red grouper, but I haven't heard that. With the hurricanes last summer, people were sitting out weeks at a time.”

Meanwhile, the grouper plot thickened to molasses as to when and how the federal rule would apply in state waters.

When considering the NMFS proposal before it was imposed, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to go along with the two-to-one bag limit reduction but not the November-December closure or aggregate cut.

That would mean anglers could continue to take grouper in state waters (mainly gags) out 9 nautical miles, while offshore a complete closure is in effect.

Phil Steele, a spokesman for NMFS, defended his agency's actions. “We understand it's going to be hard on some people this year, but we're on a rebuilding path. We think we have had several strong year-classes of fish and we think we will be able to maintain a year-round fishery. But to do that we need to look ahead.”

It's certain the closure will cause a major economic blow to the recreational fishing industry on Florida's Southwest and West Central coasts. It will also affect the Big Bend and western Florida Panhandle in a big way—especially on the heels of two busy hurricane seasons.

Most years, fishermen between Pensacola and Panama City Beach target gag grouper after the annual Oct. 31 closure of red snapper season. Gags are year-round abundant here, and that's a good thing, because migratory kingfish, cobia and tunas pretty much leave town right around the first of November.

“This new regulation limits the only reason people up here fish in winter and cripples the charter industry,” said Buck Hall of Pensacola, FS Panhandle field editor. “We've already lost half the summer because of Hurricane Dennis. The tackle stores will lose recreational anglers for the last half of the year.”

Although NMFS defends its methods used to estimate the huge 2004 spike in landings that caused the interim rule, it's already been shown that the data from the first four months of '05 indicate a 56 percent reduction from '04. And large variations in estimated landings over the past five years raise further questions about the survey.

CCA Florida and recreational anglers are skeptical of the MRFSS numbers, especially because of the four hurricanes that kept thousands of anglers at home.

“Our belief is that MRFFS tends to overestimate recreational catch,” said CCA Florida Executive Director Ted Forsgren. “Texas does not have this survey, and that's because the state found through their own surveys that the federal estimations were much higher.”

Currently, NMFS quantifies commercial catch from trip tickets. Recreational landings are harder to pin down, because the fleet fishes in so many places and in so many ways. Fisheries managers use surveys and extrapolated statistics to estimate recreational fishing effort.

Two data-collecting strategies are employed: “Intercept interviews” are conducted by trained interviewers at fishing access sites, generally boat ramps; and cold-call telephone surveys of households are made in coastal counties. The surveys are conducted separately, and data from the phone survey provides NMFS with fishing-effort estimates while the intercept surveys provide them with their catch estimates. Through complicated equations, the catch numbers and hours are combined and stratified.

“NMFS is supposed to use the numbers to examine trends. The problem comes when managers look at MRFSS numbers as hard numbers,” said Forsgren.

Indeed, at least one other burdensome closure has come about due to dubious MRFFS data, and MRFSS has been reviewed and debated many times since.

In 1992, NMFS decided that the recreational quota for Gulf of Mexico king mackerel had been met, after MRFSS number crunchers estimated that 124,802 king mackerel had been caught from shore. The agency's insistence on using that absurd data created strong doubts about NMFS accuracy.

The National Academy of Sciences is conducting an independent analysis of MRFSS, and will come back with recommendations sometime next year.

“Collection of recreational data has been insufficient ever since they started to use MRFSS,” said Capt. George Geiger, Vice President of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP), may push for a federal fishing license through the re-authorization of Magnuson-Stevens next year, and that may help NMFS better count recreational anglers. Meanwhile, recreational anglers have an opportunity to get a more balanced allotment for red grouper. The Gulf

of Mexico Fishery Management Council is working on a regulatory amendment to deal with both sectors. The first public comment period occurred in August.

“The allocations are based on history; we should be looking ahead,” said Geiger. “The system is arcane. When allocating public resources, we must determine the best economic uses of those fisheries in individual states.”

What About Gags?

The temporary Gulf grouper closure also pertains to gag grouper—which NMFS indicates are not overfished. In effect, closing November and December on the basis of protecting red grouper stocks prohibits recreational fishermen from enjoying the plentiful gag resource.

Worse, among small-boat anglers, those two months are traditionally among the best for chasing gag grouper, as the fish move closer to shore and seem to feed more as water temps cool. Reds are generally far from shore.

The good news is that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was poised to keep state waters (out to 9 miles offshore) open for grouper fishing. The FWC was prepared to reduce the red grouper limit in concert with the federal plan, but not the closure or overall aggregate limit in state waters.


Keep that ratio in mind when November 1 rolls around.

That's the approximate ratio of annual commercial allocation to recreation allocation of Gulf red grouper: 5.31 million pounds to 1.25 million pounds, to be exact.

“The major problem in Gulf red grouper management has been, and still is, the commercial fishery, which takes more than 80 percent of the total landings,” said Ted Forsgren of CCA Florida. “The federal management scheme allocates more red grouper to 25 commercial longline boats than the amount allocated to all the recreational fishers in the entire Gulf of Mexico.”


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