By Noelle H. Lowery
Just as the weather, water and fishing were heating up in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, officials with NOAA Fisheries implemented new recreational fishing closures and accountability measures for six popular Gulf reef species — red snapper, red grouper, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack, hogfish and Spanish mackerel.
The reason: Federal recreational catch limits in the Gulf were exceeded in 2013 for red snapper, red grouper, gray triggerfish and greater amberjack, while the combined commercial and recreational catch limits for hogfish and Spanish mackerel also were exceeded.
If you are one of the thousands of Southwest Floridians who occasionally enjoy harvesting the Gulf’s bounty or a visitor to the area who wants to take a chance on the water, the changes in the federal regulations may cause you some confusion — and frustration — for several reasons that boil down to one thing: where a fish is caught in the Gulf of Mexico determines whether or not it can be kept.
First, it is all about knowing the difference between state and federal waters, and knowing where Florida’s state waters in the Gulf end and federal waters begin can be a challenge. State waters stretch from the shore to 9 nautical miles, while federal waters extend from where state waters end out to about 200 nautical miles.
Second, these waters are governed and policed by different entities. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages fisheries in state waters, and NOAA Fisheries through the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council manages fisheries in federal waters off the Gulf coast of Florida and federal waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Finally, because there are two entities involved, there are times when the regulations and approaches to meeting management goals differ drastically. The FWC has a strong interest in how fish are managed in federal waters and how that management affects Floridians. Its staff serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, coordinating with the council to improve fisheries management. The FWC also partners with the council and NOAA Fisheries to collect fishery data, conduct research, assess fish stocks and enforce regulations.
In federal waters, regulations require most federally-managed species to have an annual catch limit, which is the amount of fish that can be caught by fishermen in a fishing year. Most federally-managed species also have accountability measures, which are intended to prevent catch limits from being exceeded and to mitigate overages if they occur. If the catch limit is exceeded, accountability measures are triggered.
Federal regulatory officials employ accountability measures for many Gulf reef species, including shortening the fishing season in the following year if the catch limit is exceeded in the prior year. Annual catch targets are catch levels set below the annual catch limit and are typically used for stocks that are depleted (overfished) and in need of rebuilding. Additionally, some species that are depleted require overages to be paid back in the following fishing year, resulting in catch limits and catch targets being reduced.
The 2014 regulations governing the red snapper recreational season in the Gulf are a prime example of the confusion within the system. In April, FWC and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council had very different reactions to recreational over-fishing in 2013. While both state and federal officials kept the daily recreational bag limit at 2 per person with a 16-inch minimum total length, FWC set the state Gulf recreational red snapper season at 52 days beginning May 24 and closing July 15. In federal waters, though, the recreational season lasted just nine days from June 1 to June 10. Normally, the season is 40 days long.
This protracted season was the result of an emergency rule to revise the recreational accountability measures for red snapper by applying a 20-percent buffer to the recreational quota, which results in a recreational annual catch target of 4.312 million pounds whole weight. This emergency rule will not affect the commercial harvest of red snapper in the reef fish fishery.
Additional confusion has been caused by a subtle change to NOAA Fisheries’ in-season adjustment to the red grouper recreational fishing season. Based on a 2009 stock assessment, red grouper were determined to not be overfished or undergoing overfishing, and the stock was increasing in abundance. As such, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council chose to increase the bag limit from two to four fish beginning in 2012. Landings in 2012 increased substantially compared to previous years, and were 96 percent of the catch limit. Trouble hit in 2013 when landings exceeded the catch limit by 26 percent.
This year, the red grouper recreational daily bag limit in federal waters was reduced from four fish to three fish (within the current four-fish grouper aggregate bag limit) beginning on May 5, 2014, and the Gulf recreational harvest of red grouper in federal waters will close Sept. 16, to reopen January 1, 2015, unless otherwise changed. Regulations for state waters remained the same with a bag limit of four grouper per person within the four grouper aggregate limit.
Then there are the regulations governing gray triggerfish. The federal recreational gray triggerfish sector has been closed since October of last year, but remained open in state waters through June 1. While the state recreational season will reopen in August, the federal season on gray triggerfish will remain closed.
In addition to monitoring greater amberjack, hogfish and Spanish mackerel, two other species — gag grouper and vermilion snapper — are on the federal watch list. While the recreational annual catch limit for gag grouper was not exceeded last year, recreational landings came within 2 percent of the limit. Recreational accountability measures for gag require NOAA Fisheries to close the recreational sector when the annual catch limit is met or projected to be met. The gag recreational season opens in federal waters on July 1, and will remain open until December 3, unless the 2014 annual catch limit of 1.72 million pounds is met or projected to be met before that date.
Last year, recreational landings of vermilion snapper were much higher than in previous years. Even so, the vermilion snapper recreational sector is not projected to close in 2014 at this time because the combined commercial and recreational annual catch limit for vermilion snapper of 3.42 million pounds was not exceeded. NOAA Fisheries will continue to monitor vermilion snapper landings in-season, and if combined commercial and recreational vermilion snapper landings reach or are project to reach the annual catch limit, then NOAA Fisheries will close the commercial and recreational sectors for the remainder of the year.
For more information — and clarification — on fishery regulations, visit www.myfwc.com or www.nmfs.noaa.gov.