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Federal and state fishery managers busy with half a dozen hearings, meetings in the Keys in February

A frenetic February features several fishery forums in the Florida Keys.

The status of mutton snapper, barracuda, hogfish, mackerel and sea anemones will be reviewed for public comment at a slate of six Keys sessions hosted by state and federal fish-management agencies.

A recommended reduction in mutton snapper harvests will be a prime topic at two sessions, held jointly by the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Rule changes may affect both state and federal waters.

A federal proposal to require charter-fishing boats to submit more detail reports of their offshore catches will be outlined at those same joint sessions, Feb. 2 on Duck Key and Feb. 3 in Key West.

State FWC staff holds an additional mutton-snapper meeting Feb. 4 in Key Largo.

"Stakeholders have persistently expressed concern about mutton snapper recreational bag and commercial trip limits at workshops" over the last eight years, state fishery analysts told FWC board members in November. "The public has been most vocal about this at meetings in South Florida."

The Keys are "where the majority of the mutton snapper harvest occurs," analysts said. "Stakeholders are particularly concerned about how many mutton snapper are harvested during the spawning season."

Fishing boats congregate at known mutton snapper spawning grounds from April to July. Riley's Hump, a well-known site near the Dry Tortugas, already has been protected.

A stock assessment of mutton snapper finished in 2015 concludes the species is not overfished but the estimates of the adult population were lower than expected.

State fisheries staff now recommend a daily bag limit of two mutton snapper within the recreational 10-snapper bag limit during the spawning season, with no more than 12 mutton snapper on a boat. The annual commercial catch limit is an overall 158,000 pounds.

Currently recreational anglers have an aggregate daily bag limit of 10 snapper. Those limits are year-round. Commercial anglers are limited to 10 mutton per person per day in May and June (spawning); there is no limit the rest of year. The minimum size for all anglers is 16 inches.

Commercial limits would be identical to recreational limits during spawning, with gear-specific trip limits for the rest of the year (300 pounds for hook-and-line boats was an example).

The South Atlantic Council on Feb. 2 and 3 also plans to review possible reductions in commercial and recreational harvests of hogfish in the Florida Keys-East Coast stock, and look at boundary restrictions for king mackerel.

Proposals for charter boats with federal offshore permits (dolphin, pelagics and snapper-grouper) could require captains to go online to report daily or weekly harvests.

"The harvest from charter vessels and headboats contributes to recreational landings that count toward the recreational annual catch limits and quotas," council staff said.

"We're generally in favor of getting better data on fish stocks," said Steve Leopold of the Islamorada Charter Boat Association. "We just hope they won't use it against us."

The 4 to 7 p.m. joint meetings are planned Feb. 2 at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key and Feb. 3 at the Marriott Beachside on North Roosevelt Boulevard in Key West.

Full federal documents for the hearings will be posted Friday at the South Atlantic Council website, www.safmc.net.

Council staff holds two online webinars at www.safmc.net to discuss the proposed actions: 6 p.m. Jan. 20 on charter boat reports and mackerel; and 6 p.m. Jan. 21 on hogfish and mutton snapper. Questions can be asked but no public comment will be recorded at the online events.

The state holds its mutton snapper meeting from 4 to 8 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo.

Barracuda

FWC staff returns to the Keys to take additional comments on barracuda rules Feb. 22 in Key West and Feb. 24 in Islamorada.

In November, new state regulations limiting barracuda harvests went into effect. Daily bag limits for both recreational and commercial fishers now are two barracuda per person with a maximum of six per vessel.

"Basically, the agency is asking for feedback on changes that were made, and whether any additional barracuda regulation needs to be done," FWC information officer Amanda Nalley said Thursday. "Size limits were considered previously but not adopted. Do people think they should be?"

Workshop start times and meeting places were being finalized at press time.

On Feb. 23, a Key Colony Beach workshop will look at the giant sea anemone -- a Keys species protected from harvest since 2013 due to concerns of excessive collection.

A three-year moratorium was imposed to allow time for research into anemones. Staff at the Key Colony Beach workshop (time and place to be announced) will present details of findings and take comments.

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