KEY WEST — After nearly two years of debate, federal regulators voted Thursday to reduce gag grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning Jan. 1
Under the new rules approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, recreational anglers could keep two gag a day, down from the current bag limit of five.
Recreational gag fishing would be closed during February and March, which doubles the current one-month, spawning season closure.
Commercial fishermen would face a gag grouper quota for the first time, totalling 1.32-million pounds in 2009. That's less than half of the poundage of past years' catches, but more than the fleet caught in 2006 and 2007.
The fleet already has a quota on red grouper of 5.31-million pounds. That will rise to 5.75-million for 2009.
If the fleet exceeds either its red or gag quota, all commercial grouper fishing would have to halt for the rest of the calendar year. That's because grouper swim together and you can't catch one species without killing others.
Fresh local grouper sandwiches could disappear from restaurants for months.
Another rule change drops the current Feb. 15 to March 15 commercial grouper closure, which should cheer up restaurants that love to peddle grouper to tourists. In past years, fresh local grouper was unavailable during that one-month closure.
But there's a tradeoff: Regulators voted to create a four-month closed season for a long, thin area called "the Edges.'' The fertile fishing grounds, which flank water that is 240 feet deep, would be closed from January through April for both commercial and recreational anglers, though recreational anglers rarely venture out to water that deep. Gag often collect in that depth to spawn during the first third of the year, which makes them easy targets.
Because of nuances in rulemaking authority, additional changes will take place sometime in the spring or early summer, after a public comment period passes.
At that point, the recreational bag limit will change to four grouper total, including no more than two gag and two red.
The closed recreational season for 2010 will then run from Feb. 1 through March 31 for red and true black grouper, as well as for gag.