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NEW LIMITS APPROVED FOR GAG GROUPER

Pleas from the fishing industry don't halt the 45 percent reduction.

Despite impassioned pleas from anglers and fishing-related business owners, federal regulators moved forward Thursday with plans to reduce gag grouper landings in the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.

Yes, fuel prices have already slowed down offshore grouper fishing, "but there is no way of knowing what the (fishing) effort is going to be when these rules go into place in 2009," said Roy Crabtree, administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Proposed rules approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would close all recreational grouper fishing in federal waters from Jan. 15 through April 15, the height of the winter tourist season.

Though other grouper stocks are stable, the council imposed the three-month closure for all grouper fishing because different species often swim together and protecting just one can be difficult.

The council also limited the recreational catch to one gag per person, per day, down from the current limit of five. The "bag limit" for all grouper was reduced from five to three.

Commercial fishermen, the people who supply fresh local grouper to restaurants, will face a collective gag grouper quota for the first time. At 1.2-million pounds in 2008, the quota would shut the fleet down by fall if fishing patterns from the last two decades hold true. That's because the fleet can't bring in red grouper or other species without killing gag.

Imported grouper would have to fill the breach.

The council plans to hold a few public hearings before its final vote in April. The rules would then be published in the Federal Register before taking effect in November of 2008 at the earliest, Crabtree estimated.

The state controls fishing within 9 miles of shore and typically mirrors federal regulations once they are final.

"This will be an absolute economic disaster for Florida. This is going to have at least a billion-dollar impact," said Dennis O'Hern, director of the Fishing Rights Alliance, a recreational advocacy group.

Gag is the preferred target of offshore fishermen who spend hundreds of dollars a day to go on a trip. Angler after angler testified this week that they will cut their trips way back if they can keep only one gag.

Offshore fishing is already down 50 percent from 2004 levels because of fuel prices, O'Hern said. He said he hopes the council staff will revise its models and take that into account before a final decision in April.

Bobby Spaeth, a Madeira Beach fish house owner, said the commercial reduction could shut the fleet down by summer. "The reduction is so huge that no solution is a good solution."

Elizabeth Fetherston of the Ocean Conservancy sympathized with fishermen, but blamed the council for not acting sooner. Fishing pressure on gag grouper has been too high for 30 years and will collapse the stock if it continues, she said. A federal law passed last year now requires regulators to end any overfishing within two years.

"They chose to take no action to keep the gag harvest down, and now we have to pay that back in one full swoop," Fetherston said. "We've been writing checks on our ocean's cash."

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8442.

FAST FACTS

Size limit goes up

In other action, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council raised the recreational size limit on greater amberjack from 28 inches to 30 inches. A proposal to impose a two-month closed season was defeated.

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