Frequently Asked Questions: 2013 Recreational Gulf Gag Grouper Season Changes
Prepared by FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management – February 2013
Why are Gulf gag grouper regulations changing?
Gag grouper is overfished (population is too small) and undergoing overfishing (rate of harvest is higher than population replenishes itself) in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) is required by federal law to end overfishing and rebuild gag grouper. In August 2011, the Council approved long-term management measures that establish a rebuilding plan for gag grouper. The plan will rebuild the gag grouper stock in 10 years or less.
What is the recreational harvest season for gag grouper in Gulf federal waters (beyond 9 miles from shore)?
The 2013 federal recreational season for gag grouper in Gulf waters has not been finalized. The proposed season will start July 1 and end when the annual catch target is expected to be met. This end date has not been calculated, but is currently expected to be somewhere between Nov. 11 and Dec. 3. This season provides the greatest number of fishing days without disrupting the rebuilding plan. So long as the annual catch target is not exceeded, the proposed 2013 season could be more than a month longer than the 2012 federal season, which started July 1 and ended Oct. 31. This is because the annual catch targets for gag are scheduled to increase as the stock rebuilds.
How was the 2013 federal season chosen?
This year's federal season was chosen because it yielded the greatest number of fishing days and the longest possible harvest season for gag grouper without exceeding catch targets and without lowering the current two-fish bag limit.
The Council considered several different seasons to achieve the rebuilding goal, including a split harvest season that would end on Dec. 31 and start likely between mid-November and early-December, depending on when the annual catch target was expected to be met. This split season would have accomodated regional differences in fishing activity off Florida's Gulf coast.
Public testimony on the subject was gathered at meetings in Destin, St. Petersburg and Naples by the Council and in the Big Bend region by FWC. Many for-hire permit holders stated that they preferred state regulations to be consistent with the federal regulations because they have to follow the federal season, which could be shortened if the state season is inconsistent. Several people commented that they would like the gag grouper season to be open after red snapper is closed, so that they have more total days to target these species. Many people favored the longest season possible, but recognized the economic benefits and additional fishing opportunities that could be provided by shorter split seasons. Some argued that split season could be complicated.
What is the season for gag grouper harvest in Gulf state waters?
The recreational harvest season for gag grouper in most Gulf state waters (within nine miles from shore) will start July 1 and end Dec. 3. This season does not apply to state waters off of Monroe County because Monroe County follows Atlantic rules for gag grouper. It also does not apply to state waters off of Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties, including all waters of the Steinhatchee River, Apalachicola Bay and Indian Pass. This area of state waters will be open April 1 through June 30 and will be closed to recreational gag grouper harvest for the remainder of the year, including the July 1 through Dec. 3 season.
Why were just these four counties chosen for the April 1 through June 30 regional season?
The Commission voted to establish a regional season for Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties to allow fishing opportunities for private recreational anglers in this area when gag grouper are closer to shore and can be safely accessed by smaller boats. The Commission believes that fishing effort for gag grouper is low in these counties because it is the least densely populated region of Florida’s Gulf Coast. By replacing the July 1 through Dec. 3 season with a shorter but more desirable season in the Big Bend, the Commission hopes to balance the economic and social needs of this region with the conservation needs of gag grouper.
Can charter and for-hire vessels harvest gag grouper during the April 1 through June 30 regional season?
Federal law prohibits federally-licensed for-hire vessels from harvesting gag grouper in state waters when federal waters are closed, even if they are fishing in state waters. For-hire vessels that do not have federal reef fish permits would be able to harvest gag grouper in this region during the open season.
During the April 1 through June 30 regional season for Taylor through Franklin counties, can I harvest gag grouper outside this area and land them in the open region? Can I harvest gag grouper in the open region and land them in a closed area?
No. Harvest and possession of gag grouper would only be permitted in state waters off Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties, including all waters of the Steinhatchee River, Apalachicola Bay and Indian Pass from April 1 through June 30. This means that gag grouper could only be harvested within this region and could only be landed in this region. For example, it would be illegal to harvest gag grouper off Dixie County from April 1 through June 30, regardless of where they are landed. It would also be illegal to harvest gag grouper off Taylor County and dock your boat with gag grouper onboard in Dixie County outside the open area.
During the July 1 through Dec. 3 season, can I harvest gag grouper in open state and federal waters and transit through or land those fish in the closed state waters off of Taylor through Franklin counties?
Yes. Recreational anglers will be able to transit from open federal waters or open state waters through the four-county closed area but cannot stop and fish if you have gag grouper on board your vessel. Vessels possessing gag grouper in the four-county closed area must travel through state waters without stopping and must have fishing gear stowed. If stopped and fishing in a closed area, it will be prima facie evidence that any gag grouper on board were harvested at the location where the vessel is stopped.
Will the April 1 through June 30 regional season affect the recreational gag grouper season in federal waters?
It is possible that the federal season could be shortened if the April 1 through June 30 regional season in state waters results in a higher than anticipated recreational gag grouper harvest. The federal rebuilding plan for gag grouper establishes annual catch targets (ACTs) for the recreational and commercial sectors. These ACTs are required by federal law and cannot be exceeded. Gag grouper harvest from both state and federal waters is included in the ACT and the proposed federal season was chosen in an effort to keep the overall recreational gag grouper harvest below the ACT. If harvest data indicates that the recreational ACT is going to be met before the end of the July 1 through November/December federal season, NOAA Fisheries Service would close recreational harvest in federal waters until the 2014 season. If the 2013 ACT is exceeded, the 2014 federal season could also be shortened to account for the 2013 overage. The rebuilding plan also includes yearly ACT increases as the stock rebuilds. However, if the overall (recreational plus commercial) ACT is exceeded, scheduled ACT increases may not occur.
Why wasn’t the commercial gag grouper season shortened?
Recreational and commercial grouper fisheries are managed differently because commercial and recreational harvesters fish in different areas, target different species and use different fishing techniques. Commercial gag grouper harvesters do not have a "season" like recreational anglers have. Instead, they are strictly regulated and monitored under a federal Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system in which each harvester is only allowed to harvest a certain amount of grouper per year. When commercial harvesters catch their quota, they must immediately stop fishing for grouper.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set the commercial gag grouper quota to 86 percent of the commercial annual catch target (the management goal for amount of commercial grouper harvest) to account for gag grouper that are discarded dead.