Federal fishery managers took measures Wednesday to keep one commercial fishery open, but announced the upcoming closure of another.
National Marine Fisheries Service is set to increase the commercial and recreational harvest of yellowtail snapper, but will close the commercial harvest of black grouper and several other shallow-water grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 20, as the annual catch limit for those species is expected to be reached by then. The ban on commercial grouper harvest will run to May 1, said National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Kim Amendola. Recreational harvest of the groupers will be allowed.
The Science and Statistical Committee for the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils recommended Wednesday that the annual commercial harvest of yellowtail snapper in waters they oversee will be increased from 2.9 million pounds to 4.1 million pounds.
Of that, the South Atlantic will receive 75 percent of the catch, as it is a more dominant yellowtail fishing area, said Roy Crabtree, a regional administrator for National Marine Fisheries Service and member of both Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils. The commercial sector is allocated 52 percent of the 4.1 million pounds, Crabtree said.
The recommendation came after a recent stock assessment showed there were more yellowtail than previously estimated. The recommendation will go to the National Marine Fisheries Service for final approval. The decision should be made fairly quickly, so there will not be a negative impact to the commercial fishing industry and the season won't be closed before the new annual catch limit is established, Crabtree said.
Crabtree would not speculate Wednesday on how quickly that decision will be made, or if the increase will be enough to carry the yellowtail fishery until the end of the year, at which time the annual catch limit starts over.
"It's a substantial increase," Crabtree said. "It's quite a few pounds more."
This is the first year an annual catch limit has been established for yellowtail, and the first year the fishery was in jeopardy of closing. National Marine Fisheries Service announced in August that the annual commercial yellowtail quota in the Atlantic had nearly been reached, and that the fishery would be closed Sept. 11 through Jan. 1.
However, the Fisheries Service's Southeastern Science Center in Miami reviewed commercial landings data earlier this month and found there were more yellowtail than previously believed, and that commercial fishing could continue, Crabtree said.
Also, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Florida Marine Research Institute released a stock assessment for yellowtail in September that stated the stocks were healthy and not in jeopardy of being overfished. This report was the basis for the increase in the annual catch limit.
The goal of closing commercial harvest of shallow-water grouper is to protect gag grouper, a species that is not targeted by commercial fishermen off the Florida Keys. Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly said he will petition to stop the closure in South Florida and the Keys, as only 1 percent of gag grouper is caught off South Florida. Kelly said he welcomed the committee's recommendation to increase the yellowtail catch limit.
Grouper species included in the closure are coney, scamp, graysby, rock hind, gag, black, red, yellowmouth, yellowfin and tiger grouper. Those species also are covered by a controversial seasonal ban, which runs from January to May in the South Atlantic, and February and March in the Gulf.