TAMPA — First, gas prices shot through the roof. Then the economy crashed. Last winter was cold enough to keep even diehard anglers in port.
Now federal officials want to shut down recreational fishing for gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico over concerns that the species has been overfished.
Anglers are upset at this latest blow to their sport, and so are the businesses that serve them. "This could be the final dagger in the heart," said Vance Tice, whose Tightlines Tackle in Tampa caters to the fishermen who travel offshore in search of gag grouper. "I don't know how we are going to make it through this one."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a rule in the Federal register on Monday that would make gag grouper, one of the most popular deep-water species in local waters, off limits to recreational anglers on Jan. 1 in federal waters, which begin 9 miles off the coast. Whether state officials will do the same closer inland isn't yet known.
This interim rule could remain in effect for 180 days. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will meet in February and decide whether to extend the ban or allow fishing later in the year.
"We are going to have to make some difficult decisions," said Roy Crabtree, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service's southeast regional office in St. Petersburg. "I think the council would like to see recreational fishing next year, but we are going to have to wait and see what the science tells us."
Gag is one of the most common of the shallow-water groupers and the species most likely to be caught by recreational anglers. (Recreational anglers sometimes call gag grouper black grouper, but black grouper is actually a different species, found in deep water.)
Red grouper, which makes up the bulk of the commercial catch, will not be affected by the closure, so it is unlikely the move will affect the price of fish at local seafood markets.
Federal officials say gag grouper is considered "overfished," which means the population is too low, and the species is also undergoing "overfishing," which means anglers are catching too many.
But many anglers disagree with this assessment.
"The numbers are wrong," said Dennis O'Hern of the Fishing Rights Alliance, a recreational sportfishing group that has sued the federal government over similar regulatory matters. "The whole system is tragically flawed. Mathematically, it just doesn't make sense."
At the heart of the matter is whether or not gag grouper stocks have recovered from a devastating Red Tide in 2005-2006 that killed hundreds of thousands of fish on the west coast of Florida.
Crabtree stopped short of blaming gag's precarious situation on that natural phenomenon, but said, "Something happened to cause the decline. A lot of people think it could be related to Red Tide."
O'Hern, an avid scuba diver and spearfisherman, disagreed.
"Animals don't sit and wait to get burned up in a forest fire; they move," he said. "That is what happened with the Red Tide. The fish moved to other areas. They just weren't there to be counted."
Federal officials are still gathering data on the number of gag grouper that die incidentally in the commercial fishery. (Commercial fishermen will be allowed to keep 100,000 pounds of gag grouper caught while pursuing other species during the closure because officials fear these fish would die anyway if released.)
While fishing for gag grouper in federal waters, which begin 9 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, will end Jan. 1, what happens in state waters remains to be seen.
Bill Teehan, Florida's official representative on the Gulf Council, voted for the emergency closure. But he said it is up to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to decide whether state waters will also close to fishing.
"The problem with these interim rules is that they deal only with the short term and they tend to be a little confusing," he said.
In recent meetings, FWC staff has recommended against going along with the federal plan, but that could change when the commission meets again in December.
But not every recreational angler is against the impending closure.
"Somebody might drill a hole in the side of my boat for saying this, but I think the regulations have helped," said Dave Zalewski, a Madeira Beach charter boat captain who has been running grouper trips for more than 30 years. "I think if we give a species a chance to recover, I think the fishing will be better than ever."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]