Hard-charging, tempting, and challenging the skills and wills of the anglers that pursue them, Gulf of Mexico gag grouper are truly a top-targeted species when plying near-shore and offshore waters. The current Gulf of Mexico gag grouper fishery management plan is now a top target for the Gulf Council at their upcoming October meeting. As anglers, should we be worried? Well, yes and no — as the issue is surely to become tense and political with much on the line for the recreational sector.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is considering — with wide buy-in from most stakeholders — several changes to the current gag grouper fishery management plan. The Council is considering a status quo on the stock’s annual catch limit, increasing the minimum size from 22 to 24 inches, and extending the season closure from Dec 3rd until December 31st.
Proposed changes to the gag grouper fishery management plan are solely based on a battery of uncertainties within the gag fishery itself. Given that the current stock assessment considers just the female component of the stock, evidence suggests if the combined female-male stock model were applied the overall stock would be determined as overfished.
A recent review of updated survey and catch data by the Gulf’s Science and Statistical Committee suggests that optimistic projections from the most recent stock assessment have not been realized. Adding more uncertainty and heightened concern for recreational interests in the Gulf of Mexico waters is that a mere 67% of the annual catch limit has been landed, on average, since 2008. Remember, uncertainties are just that, uncertainties, yet the gags’ uncertainties happen to be supported by the best-available data sets fishery scientists have to work with when developing fishery management plan change recommendations.
Value In Stewardship: Increased Value of the Gag Fishery
Clearly, science bolsters the advantages to increasing the minimum size limit from 22 to 24 inches. The potential impact on discard mortality is low given that most recreational gag grouper are landed well within depths of concern for barotrauma events or primarily in shallow near-shore waters. Additionally, an increased size limit will promote added spawning opportunities for young fish.
While the buy-in from the recreational sector focuses on a healthier, more sustainable gag grouper stock, not to be lost in the process is the potential socio-economic value of the proposed Gulf Council changes. Anglers, year class is everything to managers and should be to us when hoping for sustainability to any fishery; therefore, a minimal size-limit increase is set to provide the greatest impact to future stock assessments and stakeholder catching success.
Proposing an extension of the current closure date of December 3rd to December 31st speaks volumes of the Council’s willingness to consider the impacts of the potential changes and allows for a more robust gag grouper business model for the charter-for-hire sector and increased harvest opportunities for the entire recreational sector.
A Rallying Point
At first glance, the proposed changes to the current gag grouper fishery management plan adjustments are a step toward general conservation consensus in the Gulf. For me it brings to mind the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s National Standard 4, which requires that fishery management plans promote conservation. As stakeholders, we should always put our best efforts forward to promote a healthy gag grouper stock, or any stock for that matter, while working toward an end result of vibrant fishing businesses, successful recreational opportunities, and a sustainable future for the Gulf’s fisheries.
When the Gulf Council bands together and stakeholders rally around the resource, the council process and the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s annual catch limits and rebuilding timelines mandates can help protect the resource efficiently and avoid the typical political melodrama Gulf anglers have grown accustom to and which surrounds other species here in the Gulf.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act does not need to be overhauled, but maybe adjusted toward a more holistic ecosystems approach. In fact, what the Act has done for the Gulf’s fisheries needs to be applauded. The Magnuson-Stevens Act works, it works well, and gag grouper and the Gulf Council are prime examples.