Recreational anglers received a glimmer of hope Tuesday that federal regulators might ease up a bit on long-expected grouper restrictions.
Gag, the favored grouper species of weekend warriors, are under too much fishing pressure, according to a computerized "stock assessment."
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets rules in federal waters, proposed in January that recreational anglers be limited to a daily "bag limit" of one gag and two red grouper.
The council also proposed closing recreational grouper fishing for three months during the winter's tourist season, which would devastate charter boat captains.
On Tuesday, however, the council's Reef Fish Committee, suggested a less restrictive alternative: a bag limit of two gag and four grouper total, with a six-week closed season beginning on June 1.
The new proposal addresses public testimony by anglers and tackle shop owners that high fuel prices are already curtailing grouper fishing, so regulators have less need to crack down on individual anglers who do venture offshore.
The full council, meeting this week in Houston, will consider the proposal Thursday. New rules would take effect in January.
The Reef Fish Committee also recommended a gag quota for commercial fishermen for the first time.
Next year, the fleet would be allowed to catch 1.32-million pounds of gag, which are known as black grouper on restaurant menus. That's less than half the catch of 2004's peak year but slightly more than last year's catch, which fell way off.
The committee also recommended a red grouper quota of 5.75-million pounds. That's also less than historical highs but more than the fleet caught last year.
If the fleet reached either quota, all grouper fishing would shut down for the rest of the year, leaving diners to fall back on imports.