The winter months were once the best time of the year to fish for gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico because that's when these ocean bottom dwellers move to shallower water. But this year, gags will be off limits to Florida fishermen for two months during the height of that traditional grouper season. A Feb. 1 to March 31 closed season is the latest installment in what has become a soap opera starring Florida's premiere offshore sport fish. "It is really confusing," said Erich Lichtenberger of Betts Fishing Center in Largo. "You have different closed seasons in state and federal waters, and people don't know the difference. We had to print out the regulations and post them in the store and our customers still don't understand." For the past three years, grouper has been the hot topic among recreational anglers who fish the Gulf of Mexico. Fisheries management is a complicated process to begin with, but the situation has been complicated by the fact that the state and federal governments have different rules governing the various grouper species.
For starters, most recreational fishermen mistakenly call gag grouper, the common nearshore member of the Serranidae family, black grouper, even though black grouper are a distinctly different species (they are much larger and found in deeper water).
But because black grouper look so much like gag grouper, federal officials manage both species together, knowing that most fishermen cannot tell them apart.
Red grouper, another nearshore species, tend to inhabit the same waters as gag grouper. As a result, the two, or actually three different species, are managed together under an "aggregate" bag limit.
Most recreational anglers seldom venture more than 20 miles offshore and do not encounter the various other species of grouper, which include the warsaw, snowy, Nassau, yellowfin, scamp and previously mentioned black, which is sometimes called a "true black" to differentiate it from the gag.
Another species, the goliath grouper, is also protected by federal and state laws. This fish is worth mentioning because many recreational anglers believe that these Volkswagen-sized bottom feeders are big part of the grouper problem; they feed primarily on smaller grouper.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the recreational and commercial fisheries have different sets of rules. Many in the recreational sector blame the commercial bottom longline fishery, which began targeting shallow-water grouper in the 1980s, for the reported decline in those stocks.
Other recreational fishermen contend that the red and gag grouper stocks are in good shape. They say fuel prices and the recession have decreased fishing pressure. They believe that fewer people are fishing and, as a result, fewer fish are being caught. They charge that the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that manages grouper stocks, has based its decision on out-of-date data.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency responsible for fisheries within 9 miles of shore, has opposed the federal government on grouper issues in the past but has little real say into how the stocks are managed.
During summer 2008 the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils that oversee fishery management, passed the interim rules that went into effect Jan. 1. Under these new measures, the recreational bag limit for gag grouper is now two fish as part of the five-fish aggregate bag limit. The recreational closed season for gag will run from Feb. 1 through March 31.
However, the recreational red grouper limit in Gulf federal waters is still one fish per person within the aggregate limit.
The Feb. 15 to March 15 closure for red and black grouper in federal waters is still in effect. This recreational closed season does not apply to state waters.
But Amendment 30B, which was approved by the Gulf Council in August and is awaiting approval/implementation by the Secretary of Commerce and the NMFS, would replace the interim rule and do the following:
• Increase the recreational bag limit for red grouper from one to two fish per person and lower the aggregate bag limit from five to four fish per person in federal waters.
• The new rules would also establish a recreational closed season for shallow-water grouper (gag, black, red, yellowfin, and yellowmouth, scamp, red hind, and rock hind) from Feb. 1 to March 31 and lower the commercial red grouper size limit from 20 inches to 18 inches total length.
• An area west of "The Edges" 40 Fathom Line would be closed to all commercial and recreational fishing from Jan. 1 to April 30 each year, but the current Feb. 15 to March 15 commercial closed season for gag, red grouper, and black grouper would be done away with.
"People are confused," Lichtenberger said. "I think a lot of people are going to wind up being poachers because they just don't understand. I am a charter boat captain, a tackle shop owner and fisherman, and I am not sure I understand."