|Image credit: Captain Tom Marvel|
Based on the 2009 stock assessment NOAA fisheries determined the Gulf gag grouper stock was undergoing overfishing and overfished. As a result the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council was required, by law, to end the overfishing of gag within two years of this determination and rebuild stocks to sustainable levels within 10 years. The Council implemented Reef Fish Amendment 32 which established a schedule and strategy to rebuild gag stocks for both the recreational and commercial sectors.
As to why the commercial sector still gets to fish for gag, it helps to understand how the commercial grouper fishery is managed. The commercial harvest of Gulf grouper in the Gulf is managed under an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) or “Catch Share” Program. In this system, fishermen own a number of limited shares that represent a percentage of each year’s annual catch limit instead of fishermen racing against one another to catch as much fish as they can during a defined season until a total quota is reached. As long as fishermen don’t exceed their individual quotas, they can fish throughout the year in federal waters, which is where the majority of commercial grouper fishing occurs anyway. Therefore, it is possible to have commercial fishermen harvesting gag during a time period when recreational anglers are not.
To comply with the goals of the gag rebuilding plan, managers decided to set the commercial quota at 86% of their annual catch target. This adjustment was made because there are a limited number of gag shares available, and commercial fishermen who target other grouper species will inevitably continue to catch and discard gag under the limited IFQ system. Gag grouper is often caught by the commercial sector as bycatch while targeting red and other grouper species. Unlike red grouper, the commercial sector actually harvests less gag than the recreational sector does in the Gulf (61% goes to recreational vs. 39% to commercial).
In regards to why the commercial sector gets to harvest smaller fish, commercial fishermen, on average, fish for grouper in deeper waters, than recreational anglers. Fish caught in deeper water have a greater chance of dying upon release than fish caught in shallower waters. This is known as release mortality. According to the Gulf Council, gag release mortality in the commercial fishery can average 67%. The decision to decrease the commercial size limit of gag grouper from 24 to 22 inches was meant to reduce the gag release mortality rate, and prevent the wasteful discard of dead fish that would otherwise be thrown back because of a larger size limit. Because the fishery operates under an IFQ system where a fisherman cannot exceed his/her allotted share, a size limit reduction for the commercial sector would not equate to an increase in total commercial harvest.
If you would like to learn more about current grouper management efforts in the Gulf visit:http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sf/pdfs/Gulf_Grouper_FAQs_021012.pdf