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Gag grouper cuts put off amid new scrutiny

BATON ROUGE, La. — Fishermen worried about drastic cuts in gag grouper fishing got a two-month reprieve Tuesday when the management body that establishes such rules heeded warnings from a Canadian biologist and decided to take a closer look at its own fish science.

A federal "stock assessment," a computerized model that tracks fish populations, determined in 2006 that gag were being fished at unsustainable rates, requiring a 45 percent cutback.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets such rules, had been scheduled to approve restrictions on commercial and recreational fishermen this week at its meeting in Louisiana.

Now the council will delay any action until its June meeting at the earliest.

Tuesday's vote was technically a recommendation from the council's Reef Fish committee, and must be ratified Friday by the full council. But most of the full council participated in the discussion with nary a peep of objection.

"The gag assessment does not stand up to scrutiny," said Nova Scotia biologist Trevor Kenchington.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when gag were fished lightly, the model shows the population plummeting. In the 1990s and early 2000s, fishing pressure went way up, but the model shows the population remaining strong.

Federal scientist Clay Porch explained that early data were unreliable. Until 1984, catch records just said "grouper," and did not separate gag out and contained no information about sizes and ages. Two great reproductive years in the late 1990s kept the stock healthy amid heavy fishing, Porch said, but managers cannot count on that to continue.

Gag landings dropped significantly in the past three years, which fishermen say is due to high fuel costs and fewer trips. But underwater cameras indicate fewer gag in traditional gathering places, Porch said.

Even if one believes the stock assessment, Kenchington said, tables in the model indicate the fishing rate falls below a technical threshold that would require the council to impose restrictions.

Kenchington was hired by a recreational advocacy group, the Fishing Rights Alliance, and its commercial counterpart, the Southern Offshore Fishing Association. The council referred his report to its own scientific advisory committee for review and invited federal scientists to submit any new data that might show how gag are faring.

Gag grouper cuts put off amid new scrutiny 04/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 5:39pm]

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