State agency rejects later grouper-catching season in Southwest Florida

Scott McIntyre/Staff 
 Red Grouper lay spread out ready to be cleaned at the Naples City Dock while several pelicans hope for scraps in the waters below on Wednesday. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met in Apalachicola this week with a discussion about possible changes to the recreational fishing season for gag grouper in 2013.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Red Grouper lay spread out ready to be cleaned at the Naples City Dock while several pelicans hope for scraps in the waters below on Wednesday. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met in Apalachicola this week with a discussion about possible changes to the recreational fishing season for gag grouper in 2013.

gag grouper

gag grouper

Gag grouper are brownish gray with dark, worm-like markings on their sides.

Grouper are born as females but become male later.

Scientists call gag grouper by their Latin name, Mycteroperca microlepis.

Florida’s largest gag grouper was caught off Destin and weighed in at 80 pounds, 6 ounces.

Gag and red grouper, both valued for their tastiness, are the most widely distributed of Florida’s grouper species.

Grouper spawn between January and May.

— Catching a gag grouper off Southwest Florida is getting more common, charter boat captains say, but they want more time to bring more of the tasty fish to the dinner table.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted Wednesday in Apalachicola to reject a proposal to allow Southwest Florida anglers to allow gag grouper catches further into the winter tourist season, when more gag are swimming closer to shore.

Instead, the FWC voted to move forward with a Southwest Florida season that starts July 1 and runs until the annual catch limit is reached. Farther north along the Gulf Coast in the four Big Bend counties, the gag grouper season would run from April 1 to June 30. A final vote is set for February in Orlando.

The catch limit likely would be reached between Nov. 11 and Dec. 3, according to agency figures, but local captains pushed for a gag grouper season that would run from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.

"The Panhandle gets their season, and we don't get one," Naples charter captain Eric Alexander said. "I'm disappointed to say the least."

Gag grouper move closer to shore when the Gulf of Mexico cools down. Shifting the gag grouper season to coincide with that migration means local captains could get to the fish more easily — without having to spend as much valuable time and fuel — just as the winter tourist season heats up.

"From a going-after-grouper standpoint, it's hard on the local guys," said Fort Myers Beach charter captain Rob Modys, who also hosts a radio talk show about fishing. "There's no doubt about that."

Gag grouper fishing rules have been changing since a 2009 stock assessment found that gag were being overfished and that fishermen were catching too many of them for the population to rebound quickly enough.

Before federal emergency rules were put in place in 2011, recreational fishing for gag grouper was allowed year-round except during the spawning season in February and March.

New rules closed federal waters of the Gulf, beyond about 10 miles offshore, to gag grouper fishing from November to June. Florida followed suit with the same closures in state waters.

FWC reviewers cautioned that having inconsistent state and federal gag grouper closures could cause federal fisheries regulators to shorten the federal season to avoid going over the catch limit.

For 2013, the annual catch target is expected to increase by about 25 percent, from about 1 million pounds to almost 1.3 million pounds, according to the agency.

A separate gag grouper season in Taylor, Jefferson, Wakulla and Franklin counties is justified because those counties don't catch enough gag grouper to threaten the species' recovery, but being able to catch gag grouper in the spring there is important to the region's economy and culture, FWC Commissioner Brian Yablonski said in a statement after the vote.

"This at least gives the Big Bend area a chance to fish," the statement reads. "Full consistency (with federal season) takes the Big Bend out."

The Ocean Conservancy applauded the FWC vote on gag grouper seasons. A final vote in February will allow new gag grouper data to be used to fine-tune the draft proposal, said the group's outreach director, TJ Marshall.

"Their actions on gag grouper today exemplify their desire to make decisions based on the best available science," he said.

More than 90 percent of the gag grouper are caught off Florida, which makes what happens in the Sunshine State key to gag grouper recovery. Charter captains say they don't see a problem with gag grouper populations.

Modys said catching a gag grouper used to be almost a novelty; nowadays it is less surprising when an angler pulls one up, he said.

"It seems to me gag fishing is getting better," he said.

Closing the gag grouper season is a double whammy to Modys and other charter captains who don't have a permit to fish in federal waters, where they could go to catch other grouper when the gag season is over.

"When gag is shut down, it's completely shut down for me," Modys said.

Naples charter captain Will Geraghty said the current closures put gag grouper out of reach for many tourists who want to catch one of the Southwest Florida staples.

"It's hard for them to understand they've got to put the fish back," he said.

Geraghty said the agency is missing the social and economic consequences of rejecting a later gag grouper season for Southwest Florida.

"When you manage fish, you're also managing people," Geraghty said. "I feel they're losing sight of that."

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