Officials are considering closing fishing areas from the Florida Keys to North Carolina and are seeking fishermen's comments.
Representatives from the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council held meetings last week in Key West and other areas of the state to obtain input on setting aside fishery areas as a way to protect critical spawning habitat.
Certain habitat areas are important for a number of species, especially snappers and groupers, as that is where they aggregate to spawn, said Gregg Waugh, management council deputy executive director. Protecting these habitats will produce more eggs and larvae and the subsequent recruitment of juvenile fish.
The goal of the proposal is to identify important spawning habitats for snapper and grouper species, while minimizing the social and economic impacts to snapper and grouper fishermen.
"We want to strike a balance between protecting the resource and allowing fishing," council fisheries scientist Myra Brouwer said.
The proposal to close habitat came out of a discussion earlier this year by the council's snapper and grouper committee. Committee members proposed closing a deep water snapper and grouper spawning area off the Dry Tortugas called Warsaw (grouper) Hole, Waugh said.
Lower Keys commercial fisherman Tyler Hall, who attended the Key West meeting, fishes the area near Warsaw Hole. He asked that the agency not place a blanket closure throughout the entire area,
Hall and Richie Gomez, Key West Charter Boat Association president, asked Waugh and other council staff to take into consideration the economic impact to fishermen when considering closing off areas.
"It's hard for us to make a living," Hall said.
Gomez proposed limiting or reducing daily bag limits, especially while fish are spawning, as an alternative to closing off areas.
"We want to protect the resource," Gomez said. "We could support a smaller limit. The species are strong enough that we (fishermen) shouldn't be taken out of the picture."
One of the most important habitat protection programs in the country is off the Florida Keys -- the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.
Following a nearly yearlong series of workshops seeking public input, the 151-square nautical mile Tortugas reserve was designated off limits to fishing by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 2001.
A 2013 study showed that commercial fishing can coexist with marine protected areas. The study found that black and red grouper and yellowtail and mutton snapper increased in presence, abundance and size inside the reserve and throughout the region. Annual gatherings of spawning mutton snapper, once thought to be wiped out from overfishing, began to reform inside the reserve. Commercial catches of reef fish in the region increased.
In his presentation Tuesday, Waugh cited the reserve and showed a video of large numbers of snappers and groupers spawning there.
The reserve is repopulating grouper and snapper populations throughout Florida, according to satellite tracking studies.
The council currently has not proposed any specific closed areas, but wants a list of them put together by mid-September, Waugh said.
The council is scheduled to approve the sites by June 2015 and have them set aside by January 2016, Waugh said.