Decision close on closing Warsaw Hole to maintain fish spawning area

Warsaw grouper is a deepwater species.
Warsaw grouper is a deepwater species.

Federal fishery regulators could make a final decision next week on a proposed new protected marine area at the Warsaw Hole spawning site, southwest of Key West.

The four-square-mile site, about 35 miles from Key West, has long been recognized as waters where Warsaw grouper spawn.

"We all want more fish and more fishing opportunities. To do that, we have to protect the special places where these depleted snapper and grouper species breed," Leda Dunmire of the Pew Charitable Trusts said Tuesday.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, meeting Monday through March 11 on Georgia's Jekyll Island, will consider Warsaw Hole as a special management area needed to protect spawning grounds.

The federal panel previously recommended a one-square-mile enclosure for the waters but revised it to four square miles at the request of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Amberjack are also believed to aggregate and spawn at Warsaw Hole," FWC staff told its board in late 2015. "The area is known habitat for black grouper, scamp and [snapper species] silk, blackfin, red and vermilion."

The FWC staff and board recommended increasing the size of the Warsaw Hole zone "because one square mile just isn't going to get it done," Dunmire said.

If eventually enacted, the site would likely allow surface trolling but deepwater fishing for snapper and grouper would be banned.

"Fishermen would be allowed to troll for pelagic species such as dolphin, tuna and billfish," says a council summary.

The South Atlantic Council tentatively is scheduled to consider Warsaw Hole, along with four other areas outside Florida, on March 11.

A positive vote from the council would send the recommendation to the U.S. Commerce Department for final approval. It could become effective in late 2016 or early 2017.

The apparent success of protection at Riley's Hump, another Lower Keys spawning site, was cited as a precedent for fishing limits at Warsaw Hole.

In other action at the Jekyll Island session next week, the South Atlantic board will consider a proposal requiring the 1,984 charter-fishing boats that hold federal permits in its jurisdiction to make weekly reports on fish harvests.

"Electronic reporting will improve the accuracy and timeliness of data collection," a council summary says. "Fishery managers can better monitor landings and discards, and more accurately assess the impacts of regulations on the charter [and] headboat for-hire industry."

As outlined, the reporting could be done over computers.