Marie Bliss March 4, 2009

Demand for flesh Gulf of Mexico grouper has historically been durable, and domestic production is–at best–relatively small. Consequently, there is hope the grouper market may weather the storm of the continuing international economic crisis, especially in the tourism-restaurant sector.

Imminent grouper management changes will continue to limit supply. A new lowball federal gag quota, worrisome to fishermen who don’t see the need for it, and continuing 6,000-pound trip limits, will likely keep the supply in check for the near term and might contribute to steady prices.

But decent prices aren’t worth much if you can’t go fishing. And that is what many fishermen fear will happen this year.

Under an interim rule that anticipates a new addition (Amendment 30B) to the grouper fishery management plan, if the gag or red grouper quota or the quota for the overall shallow-water grouper complex is reached, the entire shallow-water grouper fishery would close for the remainder of the year. With the new Gulf of Mexico commercial gag quota set at 1.32 million pounds gutted weight (1.56 million pounds whole weight), an abundant early gag harvest could trigger a shutdown this year. That would include the industry’s mainstay, red grouper, now officially recognized as fully rebuilt and sustainable.

“That’s going to put a big hurting on us,” says Madeira Beach, Fla., fisherman Dean Pruitt.

The new gag quota is almost identical to Florida’s total gag harvest in 2007 (1.56 million pounds whole weight). But it’s substantially less than the 2005 harvest of 2.83 million pounds, the last harvest year before the 6,000-pound grouper trip limit was implemented. The other Gulf states typically add substantially less than 100,000 pounds to the total harvest.

Many fishermen, Pruitt among them, are hoping an individual fishing quota program for grouper will render the early closure issue irrelevant.

“Without the IFQ, we’re not going to get a year-round fishery,” Pruitt says.

The gulf council mailed grouper IFQ referendum ballots to 301 eligible fishermen on Dec. 5, who replied with a resoundingly favorable vote of 220 to 50.

The council is expected to take final action on the grouper IFQ this spring.

Gag production has been slipping, and ex-vessel prices increasing since 2004, when the shallow-water fishery first closed early (Nov. 15), triggered by a low quota for red grouper, which at that time federal regulators considered overfished.

Most of the commercial grouper caught in the Gulf of Mexico is landed at Madeira Beach.

In 2004, Florida gag landings of 3.19 million pounds brought $2.51 per pound on average ex-vessel, according to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. In 2005, red grouper triggered an Oct. 10 closure of the entire shallow-water grouper fishery; gag landings dropped to 2.83 million pounds worth $2.65 a pound on average.

In 2006 and 2007 the shallow-water fishery didn’t close early, but commercial grouper trip limits decreased from 10,000 pounds to 6,000 pounds–a change many fishermen supported in hopes of fishing year round. Hence, the gag harvest dropped again to 1.55 million pounds worth $2.92 a pound on average ex-vessel.

The harvest stabilized at 1.56 million pounds in 2007 and price increased again to $3.28. Average prices through September 2008 rose again to $3.36 a pound. Analysis of incomplete 2008 information and monthly figures from the previous year suggest landings will hold steady.

As has become common in grouper management conflicts, fishermen say they see plenty of gags and don’t believe the small quota is justified.

“I’m just amazed that this agency can come up with rules that [demonstrate they] have no idea of what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Bob Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood. “What chance do we have?”

In a tacit recognition of this problem, NMFS addresses the issue in a “frequently asked questions” document available on its Southeast Regional Office Web site.

“If gag fishing rates are too high, then why are fishermen reportedly seeing so many gags in the water?” the document asks.

The answer, it says, is that the gag population has been increasing since the mid-1990s because of “higher than average reproduction rates.” However, it continues, the fishery isn’t sustainable at current harvest rates unless the high gag reproduction rates continue, which scientists apparently believe isn’t likely.

Spaeth doesn’t buy the argument and wants independent oversight of the NMFS science.

“Somebody from the science community needs to do a complete, independent review,” he says.

Gagging on restrictions

Florida gag grouper landings, whole weight

'04           3,197,611   Shallow water grouper closes Nov. 15
'05           2,829,593   Shallow water grouper closes Oct. 10
'06           1,545,180   6,000-lb. commercial grouper trip limit
'07           1,557,120   6,000-lb. commercial grouper trip limit
'08           1,559,503   6,000-lb. commercial grouper trip limit
(estimated)

SOURCE: FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, NMFS

Note: Table made from bar graph.

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