Saving the Gulf’s sealife

While fishers may be upset and in disagreement, environmental groups say a cap on the number of bags and overall catch for one of the area’s most demanded fish is long overdue.

Last week, members of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met in Galveston, Texas, to discuss overfishing red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Right now we are working on an options paper that will list some alternatives to address the over fishing status of the fishery,” said Charlene Ponce of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

The options paper will include restricting size and bag limits, and reducing total catch for both commercial and recreational Gulf fishermen. The completed options paper will be presented to the council in January.

According to Ponce, when the council does not move quickly enough on an issue, the National Marine Fisheries Service steps in and sets up interim rules until the council reaches a permanent conclusion. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration runs the Fisheries Service.

“There’s a rebuilding plan for red grouper,” said Phil Steele of the Fisheries Service. “We’d established (the plan) back in 2003, and in 2005, the recreational sector exceeded their target catch levels. We had to come back in and implement some regulations to reduce the recreational catch back to the target catch levels that were set forth in its rebuilding plan.”

Stock depletion, in addition to overfishing of certain fish species, has forced regulators to get involved in protecting the existing number of grouper.

Earlier this year, the recreational red grouper bag limit was reduced from two to one. However, the captain and crew of the charter fishing boat are prohibited from obtaining their bag limit and the Fisheries Service implemented a seasonal closure.

This will keep the total allowable catch to 6.5 million pounds and reduce the commercial size limit to 13 inches, Ponce said.

Scientists began calling for cuts after estimates showed that recreational fishermen exceeded last year’s harvest by 1.8 million pounds, an NOAA press release stated.

“All three of these regulations are designed to get the recreational catch of grouper back in within their target catch levels (in the rebuilding plane),” Steele said.

Carrie Wall, a USF graduate research assistant for the College of Marine Science, said she was disappointed with the lack of progress in regulating the fishing.

“Only recently has the National Marine Fisheries Service, and namely Roy Crabtree (a regional administrator for the Fisheries Service), stepped up to propose a non-permanent decrease in the annual quota for these species,” Wall said.

According to Steele, the three regulations that the Fisheries Service has set are expected to reduce the recreational red grouper landings by approximately 30 percent.

“While this may be news to the general public, marine scientists have been aware of the devastating impacts of overfishing for quite some time,” said Abbie Harris, president of the Student Environmental Awareness Society and a senior majoring in environmental science and policy at the St. Petersburg campus.

“Both science and conservation organizations have been pushing for better fisheries management for years. I think we are starting to feel the impacts of our incautious use of natural resources, and I hope the increased coverage of this issue inspires people to make responsible decisions and also write to their legislators and ask them to do the same.”