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Decision on new grouper fishing rules on hold

(ran EAST edition)

A federal panel has postponed until September making a decision on new regulations that could dramatically change the way grouper are hooked, instead opting to hold a new round of public hearings, including one in Madeira Beach.

The new rules, proposed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, are designed to bolster the red grouper populations off Florida. The measures especially target "longline" commercial vessels, which can string up to 200 hooks per mile on lines 2 to 5 miles long.

The fleet in Madeira Beach, which catches much of the world's grouper, could be wiped out by the changes, which range from forcing longline fishermen to hook their catch farther offshore to closing popular fishing zones.

The National Marine Fisheries Service declared red grouper "overfished" in October. Now the council, which operates as a quasi-governmental agency under the fisheries service, must find a way to improve grouper numbers within the next 10 years.

Council records show a steady decline in the commercial red grouper catch, from 7.3-million pounds in 1986 to 4.6-million pounds in 1998.

Yet some commercial fishermen insist red grouper are more abundant now than they have been in years. They insist this spring's first-of-its-kind, monthlong ban on grouper fishing went a long way toward boosting the population.

The plan the council has drawn up talks of phasing out longline gear completely. The plan proposes pushing longline vessels out to where the water is 50 fathoms, or 300 feet, deep. The boat positions would be tracked by satellite, and owners would have to pay for the on-board monitoring systems.

Currently, longliners are allowed to fish outside of 20 fathoms, about 37 miles from John's Pass. A 50-fathom boundary would put them out of business, longliners say, because longer trips require more fuel, time and ice. And red grouper is a shallow-water fish, seldom venturing past where the water is 50 fathoms deep.

About 250 local fishermen attended a public hearing in Madeira Beach last month to protest the new regulations, which the council was expected to vote on this month. But when the council met last week in the Florida Keys, it postponed final action until its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 10-13 in New Orleans.

The council will hold a new round of public hearings the last week of August in Madeira Beach, Crystal River, Panama City and Galveston, Texas.

The council's staff recommended the delay because of confusion over the numbers used in determining how much grouper should be allowed to be caught, said council fisheries biologist Steven Atran. Some of the calculations were based on the gutted weight of the fish and some on the whole weight, and comparing the two was like "Fahrenheit and Centigrade," he said.

Also the staff wanted time to study a new type of fishing gear, known as "buoy gear," and whether it should continue to be allowed, Atran said.

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