Regulators appear ready to delay severe cuts in gag grouper fishing for at least a few months, so they can listen to a Canadian biologist who says the fish may not be as troubled as federal scientists presume.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in federal waters, was scheduled to vote next week on a proposed 45 percent reduction of the gag catch.
Recreational anglers faced a three-month grouper shutdown in the winter, plus a reduction of their daily gag catch from five fish to one.
Commercial fishermen faced possible shutdowns from October through December, which would deprive diners of fresh local grouper for months at a time.
But council members interviewed this week by the St. Petersburg Times said they now want to delay the vote, at least until their June meeting.
They are trying to find scientific justification to ease up on the restrictions, they said, and they need more information and more time before deciding.
"Some middle ground would be nice here, if we can find it and everyone can live with it," said council member Bob Gill, who owns a Crystal River fish house.
"I don't think an April to June delay is too much. I'd rather not knee-jerk it and go to final approval."
The council is a 17-member body of lay people and representatives of the five gulf states. Fishermen and bait house owners have testified at public hearings that the gag catch has already dropped dramatically because of high fuel prices.
But the council is under a tight deadline to tighten regulations because computerized models run by scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service have indicated that gag are under unsustainable fishing pressure.
Last month, an unusual alliance between commercial and recreational lobbying groups gave the council cause to slow down. The commercial Southern Offshore Fishing Association and the recreational Fishing Rights Alliance, who often clash on fishery management, jointly hired Nova Scotia biologist Trevor Ketchington to critique the federal data.
The latest federal computer models indicate that the gag catch has already dropped enough to end any overfishing, Ketchington said.
In response, Chairman Thomas McIlwain of Mississippi altered the agenda for next week's council meeting in Baton Rouge, slotting in time for Ketchington to make a formal presentation.
Council members want to absorb Ketchington's analysis and have fisheries service scientists respond to it, McIlwain said. The council's own scientific advisory committee will then weigh the conflicting analyses and help the council reach a decision on how much to cut back.
"I've had previous experience with Trevor. I think he is a good scientist," McIlwain said. "This council needs the opportunity to listen to his presentation."
Meanwhile, a few Florida representatives on the council are floating alternative cutbacks that might soften the blow.
Bill Teehan, who represents the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is pushing the possibility of limiting wintertime grouper closures to just the gag spawning areas, which tend to follow a ledge in 240 feet of water.
That would allow both commercial and recreational fishermen to continue fishing for red and gag grouper in shallower depths while the spawning areas close down.
Teehan also hopes that the council might have justification for setting a three-grouper bag limit for recreational anglers, even if all three are gag, the favorite grouper target of recreational anglers.
The current proposal sets a three-grouper limit with only one being a gag.
Before doing anything, the council needs more information from Ketchington and fisheries service scientists, Teehan said.
"There are too many moving parts thrown into it," he said. "It all comes down to more consultation."