Allowable catches of red grouper, a prized Florida Keys food fish, could be sharply reduced by federal fishery managers.
“The red grouper stock is overfished, currently undergoing overfishing and is not making adequate rebuilding progress” expected under a 10-year rebuilding plan launched in 2011, says a report to the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
The South Atlantic Council meets this week in Atlantic Beach, N.C., when board members will decide whether to lower the annual catch limit on red grouper. The new limits could begin in January.
Red grouper and black grouper are ranked by Keys charter captains as one of the food-fish species most coveted by anglers. Red grouper are caught throughout the South Atlantic’s jurisdiction, running from the Keys to North Carolina.
“There are lots of grouper out there, and people love to catch them and eat them,” said Piper Delph from Delph Fishing in Key West. “The number of fish we can [legally] catch continues to shrink. We can’t keep penalizing our customers and the sportfishing industry.”
Federal fishery managers will report to the council that effects of the proposed reduction in allowed red grouper harvests may be limited, since current catch rates now are far below the legal annual catch limit of 343,200 pounds whole weight for the commercial sector and 436,800 pounds whole weight for recreational anglers.
“Current commercial landings in 2017 (as of Nov. 13) are 29,362 pounds whole weight,” or 9 percent of the allowable commercial harvest in the multi-state region, a federal analysis says. Harvests are estimated to be about a third of the allowed catch limit for the recreational sector.
That “shows a continuing declining trend in landings, especially in that sector. The reduced level of observed landings is supported by anecdotal information received from commercial and recreational stakeholders who often state that red grouper are not being seen in large quantities in the South Atlantic.”
If approved by the council and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the red-grouper annual catch limits drop from the current 780,000 pounds to 139,000 pounds. It would increase in subsequent years.
Of the 2018 proposed limit, 61,160 pounds would be allocated to commercial fishers. Recreational anglers would be allocated 77,840 pounds, estimated to be just under 11,000 legal-sized red grouper (more than 20 inches overall).
“By restricting recreational red grouper harvest, there is the potential that angler demand for for-hire (charter and headboat) trips could decrease, creating the possibility of decreased booking rates and for-hire business [revenues],” the report says. “Due to the complex nature of angler behavior and the for-hire industry, it is not possible to quantify these potential economic effects.”
Currently, fishing for red grouper is open from May 1 through Dec. 31, with a daily bag limit of three grouper.
Red grouper rules will be discussed at the South Atlantic Council meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton Atlantic Beach Oceanfront (N.C.) resort at a Snapper-Grouper Committee meeting on Wednesday and the full council on Friday.
In other issues of Keys interest, the council will review a proposed moratorium on for-hire permits in the snapper-grouper fishery, which covers dozens of species. Currently, Florida Keys captains hold 389 of the 1,644 for-hire permits in the multi-state region. Final action is not expected for several months.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206