There was a time not long ago when the winter months were celebrated as the best time to fish for gag grouper off Nature Coast shores. Fishermen would ply the abundant rock piles from 5 to 50 miles offshore and usually come home with plenty of fish for dinner.
Then came a scientific assessment of the gag grouper population in the Gulf, which found that while the population was relatively healthy, its rate of harvest was deemed unsustainable, or in management terms the gag population was "undergoing overfishing." Such a determination triggers federally mandated action to end overfishing within a set time frame, usually two years. More scientists and statisticians then pored over abundance and harvest estimates and figured where they had to make cuts to reduce the harvest. The changes in regulations are complex and will likely be a bitter pill for recreational anglers to swallow.
Get used to it
Starting Feb. 1, an extended closed season for gag grouper goes into effect. No gags may be kept by recreational anglers from Feb. 1 through March 31, a 100 percent increase in duration from the past few years. Another major rule change is that state waters will be included in the closure this time. In the past, state waters, from the coast out to 9 miles, remained open during the federal waters closure.
Red and black grouper are closed from Feb. 15 through March 14. Although many local fishermen refer to gags as "blacks," true black grouper are extremely rare here and make up less than 1 percent of the annual catch.
When the season is open, the new daily recreational bag limit is two gags per person, one red grouper and a total grouper aggregate of five, which would have to include a scamp or some other shallow water grouper species.
Are you still with me? Good. There is more you need to know.
Amendment 30B to the Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan will make even more changes to the grouper laws. Its approval is pending and measures are likely to go into effect during the 2009 fishing season, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. If the amendment is approved, which most officials expect, anglers will get a rare increase in their daily bag limit of red grouper from one to two.
Red snapper, which have become one of the most prolific species on the West Florida shelf, remain closed to harvest for more than 300 days a year with only a two-month opening in late summer. Last year it was shut down early when NMFS estimates said the allowable recreational harvest for the year had been reached. Scores of fishermen have been reporting incredible numbers of red snapper from 50 feet out to more than 300 feet. We have had to move on many occasions lately because the spot we had chosen was teeming with red snapper.
Time to adjust
What's left for fishermen to take home for dinner? Mangrove snapper and amberjack will move up on the list of primary targets for a while. These smaller but tasty snapper can be caught on just about any bottom feature by scaling down your tackle and chumming while you fish. Generally, the further offshore you go the bigger the mangrove snapper. In state water "mangos," as they are often called, have a bag limit of five per person. We have caught plenty of 3- to 7-pounders on our past few trips out to the Florida Middlegrounds.
Amberjack have been thick on the wrecks from 55 feet out as far as you care to go. You can keep one per person with a 28-inch fork length minimum. For many amberjack are going to be the premier gamefish offshore during the gag closure. They are big, strong fish, aggressive feeders, and survive catch and release remarkably well.
During late February and March some migratory pelagic species such as kingfish and cobia should return to our offshore waters, providing a welcome addition to the fish box.
In the meantime, offshore fishermen should keep themselves up to date on the rapidly changing regulations. State regulations can be monitored at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Web site MyFWC.com.marine/grouper. Questions about federal grouper issues can be forwarded to Peter Hook at NOAA; Peter.Hood@NOAA.gov.