Federal fisheries managers are right to call for a temporary halt to recreational fishing for gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. Gag stocks have been overfished for years, and a six-month ban is a warranted, reasonable step toward rebuilding the species even if it will be painful for charter boat operators.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the proposed rule Monday. Starting Jan. 1, it would ban recreational anglers from taking gag grouper from federal waters, which begin 9 miles off the coast, for up to 180 days. (The state has no immediate plan to impose a similar ban in state waters; legal-sized gag are found mostly in federal jurisdiction.) Federal officials would meet in February to decide whether to allow gag fishing later in 2011.
The ban is a sensible step toward rebuilding a popular marine resource. Officials say gag is over-fished and the stock cannot reproduce as fast as fish are being hauled to the surface. An updated inventory last year showed the stock had declined since at least 2005. Officials said the ban would buy time for gag grouper to rebuild while federal managers craft a longer-term plan to restore the species.
Some anglers say the gag stock is fine, fault the government for using "flawed" science and insist the stock can be harvested and protected for the longer-term simultaneously. But a temporary pause is hardly unreasonable. The federal stock assessments draw from a much broader field of sources than the anecdotal story of what individual anglers are reporting. Federal officials look at trip reports, interview anglers at the dock and conduct field research. Policymakers need to look at the big picture of how gag are faring across the expanse of the gulf.
Offshore fishing has changed enormously in the past 20 years. GPS technology allows boaters to find a rock in 100 miles of open water. Modern boats can reach fishing grounds faster and hit more of them on a single outing. This all adds pressure to fish stocks. The government is right to focus on the goal of rebuilding gag, and it has fashioned a plan that leaves open the possibility of allowing gag fishing later next year. This is a small step toward protecting a resource the public — not only the offshore angler — owns, and the fishing community, above all others, should heartily endorse it.