Grouper fishing is back on the chopping block.
For more than a year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has struggled with how to regulate gag grouper, a treasured species that may be in trouble.
Both commercial and recreational catches have dropped, often a sign of a stock in stress. On the other hand, rising fuel prices and a shaky economy mean fewer anglers are heading offshore, which eases pressure on the fish.
The management council, the group that sets the rules in federal waters, originally contemplated severe cutbacks, like closing the recreational season for three months during the height of the tourist season.
But with fishing and catches dropping off, some council members now wonder whether they can tone down those restrictions. They will meet this week in Houston to decide, and it's not an easy call.
Bays and estuaries are teeming with juvenile gag, possibly portending a rejuvenation of the stock, but other recent data seem to reinforce the notion that the adult gag population may be dwindling.
Here are some details:
Why are restrictions necessary?
Gag, also known as black grouper, is the favored target of recreational grouper anglers. Prized by diners, it traditionally represents about 20 to 30 percent of the commercial grouper catch. A computerized "stock assessment," finished in 2006, determined that fishermen were killing too many gag. Federal law requires the management council to end this "overfishing'' by reducing both the commercial and recreational catch.
When would new restrictions start and how long would they last?
The council wants restrictions in place by January. Because rules take time to implement, the council will probably craft the restrictions this week. Under normal circumstances, the new rules would remain in place through 2012 or longer. But with so much uncertainty surrounding the gag population, federal scientists are now talking about updating their "stock assessment'' next year, which could allow further adjustments by 2011 or even late 2010.
What makes the gag decision so complicated?
The 2006 stock assessment crunched thousands of pieces of information. Unfortunately, its latest data came from 2004, now four years old. Several dramatic and conflicting trends have unfolded since then that call those predictions into question.
Landings have dropped by about half over the last three years. The big question is why? Anglers and tackle shop owners say high fuel prices have killed offshore fishing. Large gag tend to congregate 60-100 miles offshore. A fast recreational boat getting 2 miles to the gallon can run up a $300 fuel bill in one trip. If regulators decide that the catch declined because fuel prices kept anglers home, stringent restrictions may be less necessary. As long as gas prices stay high, lots of gag will survive without stringent new measures.
Doesn't that solve the problem?
Maybe not. Federal scientists drop cameras at dozens of gag habitats and count the fish that come into view. These gag counts have dropped noticeably since their 2004 highs. Fewer fish might be out there. Scientists also track "catch per unit of effort,'' which measures whether commercial fishermen, party boats and recreational anglers are catching much gag given the time they spend fishing and the number of hooks they put in the water. These catch-per-effort numbers have dropped since 2004, which also might indicate that gag are getting scarce. If scarcity reduced the landings, then regulators may remain cautious, high fuel prices or no.
Aren't the bays full of little gag?
Surveys by the state of Florida show that Tampa Bay and Apalachicola Bay are teeming with year-old gag. This baby boom could help rejuvenate the stock if they reach reproductive age two or three years from now. But that's not a given. Red tide, predators and other forces of nature can devastate juveniles.
A few months ago, commercial and recreational advocates hired Nova Scotia fishery biologist Trevor Kenchington to analyze the gag stock assessment. When he found numbers that seemed to question the need for cutbacks, the management council delayed imposing new restrictions so their scientific advisers could take a closer look. Last week, the council's scientific advisory committee listened to Kenchington but rejected his major points. The stock assessment, as written, will continue to underpin council decisions.
When will fishermen and diners get final word?
The council's Reef Fish Committee will propose the new restrictions Tuesday. The full council is scheduled to take a final vote on Thursday.