by Gulf Council Staff and Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
As the eve of 40th anniversary of the signing of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act approached, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met in Austin to discuss numerous fishery issues. Included on the Council’s busy agenda were changes in king mackerel allocation, stock boundaries, and sale provisions; hogfish annual catch limits, minimum size and stock definition; red grouper catch limit increases; and charter and headboat reporting requirements. However, as usual, it was Gulf red snapper that once again stole the show as well as a majority of the Council’s time and energy.
Forty years have passed since Congress passed the sweeping legislation changed the landscape of the American seafood industry and established a comprehensive framework for governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. The Act created eight regional fishery management councils – including the Gulf Council – designed to address the unique, regional differences in marine fisheries across the country.
For years, red snapper has consumed a majority of the Councils time, and the Austin session proved no exception. Red snapper management for federally permitted charter vessels, the 2016 recreational red snapper season and the extension or elimination of the red snapper sector separation sunset provision all topped the agenda, as well as federal reef fish headboat management.
The Council received an update from the NOAA Fisheries Service (NMFS) on red snapper season projections for the coming year. Both the private recreational season and federal charter for-hire season will open on June 1. NMFS predicts a private recreational season of just six to nine days, and a federal charter for-hire season of between 38-56 days. The final 2016 recreational red snapper season closing dates will be announced in May prior to the start of the season.
More than 25 recreational fishermen, and an equal number of charter-for-hire and commercial operators filled the visitors’ chairs in the Austin Doubletree’s conference room to listen to the Council’s discussion and to testify.
During their testimony, recreational fisherman from Texas chastised the Council for the lack of red snapper fishing days, citing their rights as citizens to have open access to the fish.
Responding to a vocal barrage directed at Council members and commercial fishermen, Council member Roy Williams of Florida relentlessly questioned the recreational fishermen on how the majority of Americans were to get Gulf fish without a commercial sector, and whether private anglers were open to a year-round tag system. The private anglers in attendance had no answers to either question.
“I am optimistic about having a longer red snapper season this year,” said Orange Beach, AL federally permitted charter fisherman Troy Frady of Distraction Charters. “Thankfully, and due to sector separation, charter fishermen like myself have a renewed confidence in our industry and have begun reinvesting in our businesses, something good for the economy of each Gulf state.”
According to Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) member Steve Tomney of Port Fourchan, LA, the toughest problem for the private boat anglers is the numbers.
“If a half a million anglers make one successful red snapper trip and catch their two-fish limit, they could land about seven million pounds – way over the annual catch limit (ACL),” explained Tomney, who operates Steve Tomney Charters.
“If you think that’s too high, cut it in half and use a quarter million anglers catching their limit one time, and your around three and half million pounds, this gets you closer to the ACL. Most private boat owners don’t plan to fish snapper just once a year, so it’s not hard to see how one hundred thousand people that go several times in a season can easily catch the private boat quota, and a whole lot more.”
Also during the meeting, the Council reviewed an updated Reef Fish Amendment 41, which included input received from the Ad Hoc Red Snapper Charter For-Hire Advisory Panel. The amendment considers the creation of a red snapper management plan for federally permitted for-hire vessels fishing under the for-hire component of the recreational red snapper allocation.
The Panel provided guidance to Council staff on developing the draft amendment and the Council agreed to reconvene the Ad Hoc Red Snapper Charter For-Hire Advisory Panel to continue work on the design of an allocation-based management plan for red snapper. The Council also requested that its Advisory Panel discuss a harvest tag program providing recreational anglers with annual allocation distributed in the form of harvest tags which may be used on the charter vessel of their choice, and to evaluate the pros and cons of such a program. The Council will review a revised draft of the amendment in June.
On the Red Snapper Sector Separation Sunset Provision – Amendment 45 – the Council selected a preferred alternative to extend the separate management of the federal for-hire and private angling components for an additional three calendar years, effective through the end of the 2020 fishing year. Public hearings on the amendment will be scheduled throughout the Gulf coast this summer.
“It is great to see the Council postpone the red snapper sector separation sunset provision for the charter-for-hire sector,” said GSI President Harlon Pearce. “With the Gulf fleet’s new electronic fisheries data collection program, the charter-for-hire community is well on its way to creating a year-round fishery that is sustainable within their allocation.
GSI’S Mike Colby, a charter-for-hire fisherman from Clearwater, Florida, testified the current electronic data collection program for the charter-for-hire sector being run by GSI and CLS America in the Eastern Gulf could be extended to the remaining approximate 875 vessels for a cost of three million dollars. He told the Council that installation would include an antenna, junction box, tablet computer, software and reporting forms and one year of satellite service through CLS America, Inc..
After Wednesday’s meeting, members of the Council and guests attended a science social “Chilling With Your Chums” presented by the Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Program.
Dr. Joel Fodrie, an Assistant Professor of fisheries oceanography and ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), educated attendees on “Deepwater Horizon: What we know and don’t know about impacts on fishes”, while Dr. Benjamin Dubansky, a developmental physiologist at the University of North Texas’ Developmental Integrative Biology Research Cluster, gave a presentation focused on the negative effects that oil can have on fish and how some populations have adapted to be resistant to these impacts.
When questioned, Dr. Dubansky said that although some species of fish have proven resistant to the oil, the dispersants used to clean the spill added an additional factor that needs further study.
Toward the end of four-day session, one Gulf Council Member, speaking off the record, told Gulf Seafood News that Magnuson Stevens continues to work 40-years later, “sometimes it becomes a messy process, but it isn’t all that bad when everyone gets a seat at the table to be heard.”
Other Council Actions
Framework Action to Modify Commercial Gear Requirements and Recreational/Commercial Fishing Gear for Yellowtail Snapper
The Council took final action on the Yellowtail framework which addresses inconsistencies between the Gulf and South Atlantic Councils’ circle hook requirements for yellowtail snapper commercial fishing in Gulf waters and increases the operational efficiency of the commercial yellowtail snapper fishery.
The Council chose to remove the circle hook requirement for yellowtail snapper when commercial fishing with natural bait south of 25° 09’ north latitude on the west coast of Monroe County, Florida (Cape Sable) south to the Gulf Council jurisdictional boundary. It also modified both the commercial and recreational fishing years to August 1 through July 31. The framework action will be transmitted to the Secretary of Commerce for approval and implementation.
Framework Action – Modify Red Grouper Annual Catch Limit
After hearing a summary of public comments, the Council made recommendations of the Reef Fish advance programs and supporting rationale for a framework action to modify the red grouper annual catch limit. It chose an alternative that establishes catch limits using the constant catch Overfishing Limits (OFL) and Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) recommended by the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), but set the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) and the Acceptable Catch Limit (ACT) below the constant catch OFL and ABC, and to base the ACL and ACT on the minimum ABC of 10,770,000 pounds gutted weight from the declining yield stream.
The resulting limits and targets are as follows:
- Effective Stock ACL is 10,770,000
This increase in catch limits is expected to be sufficient to prevent a recreational season closure from occurring in 2016 if implemented in time. Without the increase, the National Marine Fisheries Service projected that the recreational ACL would be reached and the season closed sometime between September and December. The framework action will be transmitted to the Secretary of Commerce for approval and implementation.
Hogfish Annual Catch Limit, Minimum Size Limit, and Stock Definition
The Gulf Council reviewed a public hearing draft of an amendment that considers setting a management boundary between the west Florida stock of hogfish, which is located entirely in the Gulf of Mexico jurisdiction, and the east Florida/Florida Keys stock, which occurs primarily in the South Atlantic but extends partially into the Gulf Council’s jurisdiction in the Florida Keys.
The draft amendment looks at defining overfished and overfishing thresholds, setting an annual catch limit and increasing both the commercial and recreational minimum size limit for hogfish. The Council selected a preferred alternative that would raise the minimum size limit of hogfish to 16 inches fork length.
The Council took final action on Coastal Migratory Pelagics Amendment 26 which modifies allocations, stock boundaries, and sale provisions for king mackerel in the Gulf and South Atlantic. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the amendment will establish a single, year- round, boundary on the eastern edge of the mixing zone and delegate management to the Gulf Council.
The amendment will also allow retention and sale of Atlantic king mackerel caught incidentally with a gillnet on boats that have both a federal king mackerel permit and shark commercial permit; and allocate the Atlantic Southern Zone into two split season quotas:
The resulting Gulf commercial zone quotas are as follows:
The recreational bag limit will also be increased to three fish per person in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Council also asked staff to begin developing an amendment to address the utilization of uncaught quota and associated accountability measures for king mackerel. The Council intends to explore this “allocation sharing” approach independently of other pending actions for Gulf king mackerel, with the purpose of identifying more ways to allow fishermen to access the totality of the Gulf king mackerel ACL.
The Council approved the annual Texas shrimp closure for 2016. The closure is part of a cooperative seasonal closure with the State of Texas and runs concurrent with its mid-season closure. The shrimp fishery is closed annually off Texas to allow brown shrimp to reach a larger and more valuable size prior to harvest and to prevent waste of brown shrimp that might otherwise be discarded due to their small size.
The Council continues to work on Shrimp Amendment 17B which considers shrimp permit issues such as setting a minimum threshold number of Gulf shrimp vessel permits and whether to create a Gulf shrimp vessel permit reserve pool, specification of optimum yield, and issues about transiting in federal waters. In addition to reviewing the draft document the Council also considered reports from the Shrimp Working Group and Shrimp Advisory Panel. The Council made several modifications to the document, and a revised draft will be presented to the Council in June.
For retired Council Member William S. “Corky” Perret, presenting the Shrimp Advisory Panel’s recommendations to the Council was deja vu with a twist.
“I have always enjoyed being part of this process,” said the GSI Board Member from Mississippi. “After more than 30 years of serving on the Gulf Council, representing Louisiana, Mississippi, then the entire Gulf as an At Large Member, it was great to see the many friends I’ve made over the years and a great deal different sitting on the other side of the table, delivering recommendations from the SAP for the Council’s consideration. I know the Council will give serious attention to the input from its Advisory Panel.”