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Uncertainty swirls around gag grouper fishing

Guide Dave Walker hoists a gag grouper pulled from Tampa Bay, which is inside now-open state waters. Federal waters are closed to gag grouper harvest now.

TERRY TOMALIN | Times

Guide Dave Walker hoists a gag grouper pulled from Tampa Bay, which is inside now-open state waters. Federal waters are closed to gag grouper harvest now.

Dave Walker could not control his excitement.

"I love it when a plan comes together," the Tampa-based fishing guide said as he unhooked a 30-inch gag grouper caught a few hundred yards from land. "Nobody thinks you can catch gag grouper in Tampa Bay."

The species, well known to offshore anglers, migrates to shallow waters during winter.

And for the next few weeks Florida anglers who work gulf state waters, which extend to 9 miles offshore, can catch these prized bottom fish while their counterparts in fishing the federal waters (beyond 9 miles offshore) must release these fish.

"It is confusing," said Mark Robson, director for the Division of Marine Fisheries Management for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The regulations can be hard to keep track of."

On Jan. 1, fishery managers shut down gag grouper fishing in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico for six months. Florida officials, however, decided not to follow the federal lead.

"We are going to wait and see what the long-term management measures will be," Robson said. "It is going to be a while before they have a plan in place."

But on Feb. 1, gag grouper fishing will shut down in state waters as well, when a regularly scheduled two-month closure goes into effect.

"It is too bad," said Walker, who once relied heavily on catching winter gags to supplement his income. "It seems like more and more fish are off limits."

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, gag grouper are technically "overfished," which means there are not enough fish to reproduce and maintain a healthy population. The species is also technically undergoing "overfishing," which means that anglers are catching too many fish.

The emergency closure is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga surrounding the Gulf of Mexico's pre-eminent bottom fish: grouper.

Gag grouper, mistakenly called "black" grouper by some, is primarily a recreational species, while red grouper is the mainstay of the commercial fleet.

The commercial/recreational catch ratio set by fishery managers varies from year to year, but the allocation is usually a point of contention between the sides.

Recreational anglers blame commercial fishermen, particularly the Gulf of Mexico's longline fleet, for depleting the grouper stocks.

The commercial fishermen blame the increasing number of well-informed, technologically savvy, recreational fishermen for catching too many grouper.

Both sides distrust the federal government and question the science used to make most management decisions.

"The numbers just don't make sense," said Dennis O'Hern of the Fishing Rights Alliance, which represents recreational angler interests. "The grouper population is in much better shape than they think."

O'Hern and members of his organization have also found themselves at odds with a variety of environmental groups over fish stocks.

Conspiracy theories abound. Recent news releases from various recreational groups have accused the Obama administration of trying to end recreational fishing and the United Nations of taking over all commercial fishing.

Complicating matters is the fact that fisheries management is an extremely cumbersome and complicated process, even to those who have been involved in it for years.

For decades, the nation's fisheries, including snapper and grouper, have been managed to ensure maximum economic returns. The Federal Fisheries Service is part of the Department of "Commerce," as in the exchange of goods and services.

But in the past decade, the economics and politics of fisheries have changed. Regulators, at both the state and federal level, have tried to put a dollar amount on the value of the recreational fishing.

One recent study commissioned by the Coastal Conservation Association (a sportfishing group) concluded that recreational gag grouper fishing generates $107 million and supports 1,523 jobs. Commercial gag grouper fishing, by comparison, generates $16 million and supports 322 jobs.

While offshore recreational grouper fishermen sit idle, commercial fishermen can still catch gags in Gulf of Mexico federal waters until they reach their quota of 100,000 pounds.

Fishery managers hope to reopen gag grouper fishing in federal waters later this year. But when and for how long has yet to be decided. Recreational anglers can look forward to months of heated debate and undoubtedly more stringent regulations than they enjoyed in the past.

The only thing certain about the future of gag grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is uncertainty. That you can bet on.

Uncertainty swirls around gag grouper fishing 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 7:26pm]
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