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Holly Binns, a project director for the Pew Environment Group, issued the following statement today in response to the U.S. Commerce Department’s final approval of a gag grouper recovery plan. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council initially passed the plan in August of 2011.
“This plan is a major step toward rebuilding the Gulf of Mexico gag grouper population, which has been reduced by nearly half in just the past seven years. Females outnumber males 30 to 1 due to overfishing and heavy fishing at spawning areas. These conditions demand strong action,” Binns said.
“Reduced catch limits, a shorter fishing season and other measures should help the species get on the road to recovery. But without additional protections for gag grouper in areas where they spawn, we’ll have to wait and see if this plan is strong enough to get the job done. If this fish population does not begin to grow, we may need additional safeguards for known spawning sites and habitats where male gag reside.
“Gag grouper are a mainstay in Florida’s famous grouper sandwiches and are a popular recreational catch. We must do what’s necessary to boost their populations, even though new restrictions may represent short-term sacrifice for some fishermen. The good news is as gag grouper show signs of rebounding, these new rules can be relaxed and catch limits can be increased incrementally,” Binns said.
After a 2009 study showed the gag grouper population was in trouble, fishery managers enacted temporary measures in 2011 until this long-term plan could be approved. The long-term plan relaxes some of those temporary restrictions, allowing for more catch and a longer fishing season. The new rules are expected to become effective March 12.
The Pew Environment Group believes gag grouper need additional protection in well-known deep areas where the fish reside and spawn. Commercial fishermen target these regions, where gag are easily caught. The species could recover faster with a halt to fishing during spawning and year-round protections in areas where dwindling males permanently reside.
Currently, three areas—about 600 square miles— are closed to gag fishing to protect the species’ spawning grounds, but the regions known as Steamboat Lumps, Madison-Swanson and The Edges protect only a small portion of the depleted male population. Pew had supported a proposal to protect additional areas – about 240 square miles – but the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council rejected it.
Scientific evidence shows gag grouper can rebound quickly when spawning areas and habitat are protected. Florida State University fisheries researcher Chris Koenig has studied the issue during the past two decades. In the Madison-Swanson Marine Reserve offshore of the Florida Panhandle, fishing on the bottom for gag and other reef fish has been prohibited since 2000. Research in recent years shows male gag grouper populations in the reserve are nine times larger than in areas that are not in the protected region Males also were larger and older. This is important because the percentage of males has dramatically declined from the 1970s and has remained at historic lows for almost two decades, leaving too few breeders to sufficiently replenish the species.
The Pew Environment Group is the conservation arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nongovernmental organization that works globally to establish pragmatic, science-based policies that protect our oceans, preserve our wild lands and promote clean energy.