Get ready for more restrictions on grouper fishing.
After trying to reduce the gag grouper catch by 40 percent this year, federal regulators are contemplating an additional 80 percent cutback as early as next year.
West Florida's iconic grouper sandwich is in no immediate jeopardy. Substitute grouper species can fill gaps left by any shortage of gag.
But recreational anglers, who catch more gag than all other grouper, probably will endure restrictions that regulator Bob Gill called "ghastly."
Until a year ago, recreational anglers could keep up to five gag a day. Fishing was banned for 30 days for the height of the spawn.
This year, regulators reduced the daily limit to two gag, with a two-month closed season.
Now, scientists say more cuts are needed because dwindling catches and underwater surveys indicate that gag are "overfished," a legal designation under federal law that requires regulators to rebuild the stocks.
"We'll have to have a very short season" with probably a one-fish limit, said Gill, a Crystal River seafood market owner who represents Florida on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
The management council will discuss the restrictions next month during its meeting in Orange Beach, Ala.
On a brighter side, gag stocks may rebuild quickly, said Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Bays and estuaries are teeming with juvenile gag, the biggest batch ever recorded. If nature cooperates and those youngsters mature into breeders in a few years, "we can get recovery on track and it can come back pretty quickly," Crabtree said.
That's little solace to recreational anglers. They distrust federal scientists and say stock studies suffer from shaky data.
Among other things, the gag assessment suggests that a severe Red Tide in 2005 killed as much as a third of the gag stock, contributing to big dropoffs in catches since 2006.
Fishermen say the gag stock is still pretty healthy. They blame lower catches on high fuel prices, the economy and a recent abundance of aggressive red snapper that hang out on rocky ledges and outcroppings that gag favor. Snapper tend to take bait before it gets down to gag.
Gag are moving to new locations to escape snapper, angler advocates say, and that's why videocameras monitoring traditional haunts see fewer gag.
"It seems that the bigger gags have moved into shallower water than we traditionally see them," says Dennis O'Hern, a spearfisherman who heads the Fishing Rights Alliance.
"We were in a tournament a few weeks ago, and at 80 feet saw only a few keeper grouper. But at 40 feet we saw a ton of them."
Dave Bayes, who manages Dogfish Tackle in Seminole, predicted that a one-gag limit will decimate offshore fishing, particularly in the winter, when gag congregate in hot spots and tourists seek out big-fish, charter-boat thrills.
"People come down and want to go fishing," he said, "but when they are paying $1,100 or $1,200, they expect to keep some fish."
Commercial fishermen also will feel the pain. Grouper is by far their biggest money earner, and gag makes up 20 to 30 percent of the grouper catch. An 80 percent gag reduction would rock an industry already reeling from economic uncertainty.
"It's a nightmare. Most of my landings are gag," said Martin Fisher, who owns two commercial boats and sells his catch at Saturday Market.
Like others, Fisher questions the accuracy of the stock assessments, particularly the notion that the 2005 Red Tide killed so many grouper.
"We asked them, 'Do you have any video of dead grouper on the bottom?' And they said, 'No.' And yet they say one in three gag were killed by the Red Tide.''
On the other hand, Fisher worries that active hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 triggered a huge bite in the months that followed, and that fishermen may have, indeed, killed off too many big breeders.
"If they know that gag are in this much trouble, then we need to take remedial action now," Fisher said. "As painful as it's going to be, it could be even more drastic a year later.
"It's not just the fish we are protecting. We are protecting the future of fishermen."
Rulemaking and public hearings often take a year or longer so the new restrictions would not go into effect until next year at the earliest.