Gag Management Measures

NMFS proposes regulations to implement management measures described in a regulatory amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico (FMP), as prepared by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council). If implemented, this rule would (1) establish a closure date for the 2013 recreational sector for gag harvest based on the projected annual catch target (ACT), and (2) reduce the geographic extent of the recreational shallow-water grouper (SWG) fixed seasonal closure, which are in place to prevent overfishing of gag, and to reduce fishing pressure on other SWG species. The reduction in the geographic extent of the closure still would provide some spawning season protection for several SWG species, but provides a better opportunity for the recreational sector to achieve optimum yield (OY) from the stocks in the SWG complex in the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf). This proposed rule is intended to help achieve OY for the Gulf gag and other SWG resources and prevent overfishing from the stocks in the SWG complex.

Written comments must be received on or before March 25, 2013.

 

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments on this document, identified by ``NOAA-NMFS-2013-0012'', by any of the following methods:

 

     Electronic Submission: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Go to www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2013-0012, click the ``Comment Now!'' icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.

     Mail: Submit written comments to Peter Hood, Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

    Instructions: Comments sent by any other method, to any other 

address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, 

may not be considered by NMFS. All comments received are a part of the 

public record and will generally be posted for public viewing on 

www.regulations.gov without change. All personal identifying 

information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business 

information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily 

by the sender will be publicly accessible. NMFS will accept anonymous 

comments (enter ``N/A'' in the required fields if you wish to remain 

anonymous). Attachments to electronic comments will be accepted in 

Microsoft Word, Excel, or Adobe PDF file formats only.

    Electronic copies of the regulatory amendment, which includes an 

environmental assessment, regulatory impact review, and Regulatory 

Flexibility Act analysis, may be obtained from the Southeast Regional 

Office Web Site at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sf/GrouperSnapperandReefFish.htm.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Peter Hood, Southeast Regional Office, 

Background

    The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires NMFS and regional fishery 

management councils to prevent overfishing and achieve, on a continuing 

basis, OY from federally managed fish stocks. The reauthorized 

Magnuson-Stevens Act, as amended through January 12, 2007, requires the councils to establish 

annual catch limits (ACLs) for each stock/stock complex and 

accountability measures (AMs) to ensure these ACLs are not exceeded. 

This proposed rule addresses these requirements by (1) establishing a 

closure date for the recreational sector for gag harvest based on when 

the ACT is projected to be reached, rather than closing on October 31, 

2013, under current regulations; and (2) modifying the geographic 

extent of the recreational SWG fixed seasonal closure, from February 1 

through March 31, each year, to permit recreational SWG fishing within 

Federal waters shoreward of the 20-fathom boundary during the closure. 

In the Gulf, SWG means gag, red grouper, black grouper, scamp, 

yellowfin grouper, and yellowmouth grouper.

 Recreational Gag Fishing Season

    Gulf gag is overfished and the stock is currently in a rebuilding 

plan. The 10-year rebuilding plan was implemented through Amendment 32 

to the FMP (77 FR 6988, February 20, 2012). Pursuant to the rebuilding 

plan, in 2013, the recreational ACL is scheduled to increase from 1.232 

million lb (0.559 million kg) to 1.495 million lb (0.678 million kg), 

gutted weight, and the ACT is scheduled to increase from 1.031 million 

lb (0.468 million kg) in 2012 to 1.287 million lb (0.584 million kg), 

gutted weight. Preliminary estimates indicate the recreational sector 

landings did not exceed the 2012 ACL of 1.232 million lb (0.559 million 

kg), gutted weight, which would allow the ACL and ACT to be increased 

in 2013, in accordance with the rebuilding plan.

    The 2012 recreational gag fishing season was July 1 through October 

31. To set a 2013 recreational gag fishing season, the Council 

evaluated seasons beginning at different times. Fishermen had expressed 

interest in being able to fish for gag during other times of the year 

to accommodate regional and seasonal differences in gag fishing. As a 

result, several alternatives were developed to either move the start of 

the recreational gag fishing season to a different time, or to split 

the season into two or three sub-seasons. However, moving the season to 

times when there is greater demand for gag fishing would reduce the 

total number of days available to fish. Therefore, to provide 

additional fishing days, the Council added an option to reduce the bag 

limit from 2 to 1 fish during the recreational gag fishing season.

    After evaluating alternatives, the Council selected a recreational 

gag fishing season beginning on July 1, 2013, and closing when the ACT 

is projected to be reached, rather than closing on October 31, 2013, 

which is the current regulation. The Council also decided to maintain 

the 2-fish bag limit during the recreational gag fishing season rather 

than reduce the bag limit to 1 fish because the number of projected 

additional fishing days to the 2013 season was small (less than 2 

weeks). If implemented, each year, NMFS would project when the ACT is 

expected to be reached, and publish the date for the closure of the 

recreational sector for gag harvest in the Federal Register. Given a 

2013 ACT of 1.287 million lb (0.584 million kg), gutted weight, and 

assuming compatible state regulations, preliminary NMFS projections 

indicate the recreational gag fishing season would remain open until 

sometime between November 11 and December 3, 2013. A 2013 closure date 

for the recreational sector for gag harvest would be set in the final 

rule. This would allow landings data for the recreational sector, 

through the end of the 2012 recreational gag fishing season (October 

31), to be used for projecting the 2013 season length.

    The final closure date for the 2013 season may be earlier or later 

than closure dates described above because it is contingent on catches 

reported in 2012 and state consistency with regulations existing in 

2013. For example, in 2012, four Gulf coast counties in Florida had 

recreational gag fishing seasons in state waters that were inconsistent 

with the 2012 Federal season. All other Gulf coast counties were 

consistent with the season for Federal waters. If Florida chooses to 

repeat these seasons in 2013, then the effect of any inconsistent 

seasons on gag harvest would need to be factored into projections of 

how long the Federal season can be open based on the ACT. Furthermore, 

accountability measures, specified at 50 CFR part 622.49(a)(4)(ii), 

state that if landings reach, or are projected to reach, the ACL for 

that fishing year, NMFS will close the recreational sector for gag 

harvest for the remainder of the fishing year. Therefore, NMFS could 

close the recreational sector for gag harvest prior to reaching the 

final closure date (including the current closure date of October 31, 

as provided in 50 CFR 622.34(v)), if landings reach, or are projected 

to reach the ACL for that fishing year.

 Recreational SWG Fixed Seasonal Closure

    The current recreational SWG fixed seasonal closure, from February 

1 through March 31, each year, was part of a suite of recreational 

measures implemented through Amendment 30B to the FMP (72 FR 17603, 

April 16, 2009) designed to achieve target harvest levels for both red 

grouper and gag, and to end overfishing of gag. Part of the rationale 

for selecting the recreational SWG fixed seasonal closure, from 

February 1 through March 31, each year, was to protect spawning of SWG 

species, and in particular gag, which spawn primarily along the 40-

fathom break in the eastern Gulf. Because the current and proposed 

recreational gag fishing season opens July 1, well after peak gag 

spawning in February and March, gag spawning is protected by both the 

closure of the recreational sector for gag harvest and the current 

recreational SWG fixed seasonal closure. The recreational SWG fixed 

seasonal closure, from February 1 through March 31, also covers the 

spawning periods of some of the other SWG species and thus provides a 

biological benefit to these species. Like gag, spawning for many of 

these SWG species occurs in offshore rather than near-shore waters; 

thus the modified geographic extent of the recreational SWG fixed 

seasonal closure proposed in this rule may continue to provide some 

protection for these SWG species with spawning periods during the 

proposed closure. In addition, red, black, and other SWG are managed 

with ACLs and AMs to prevent overfishing from occurring.

    The Council evaluated several alternatives to the recreational SWG 

fixed seasonal closure, including shortening, shifting, and repealing 

the closure. To continue protections for gag and other SWG spawning, 

the Council preferred to modify the geographic extent of the February 1 

through March 31 recreational SWG fixed seasonal closure, to only apply 

to Federal waters seaward of the 20-fathom boundary. If implemented, 

this modification would continue to provide protection for spawning gag 

as well as for other SWG species that spawn in waters deeper than 20 

fathoms in February and March. The coordinates of the boundary would 

follow the 20-fathom reef fish bottom longline boundary from the 

Florida Keys north and west to Cape San Blas, as specified in Table 1 

of Appendix B to 50 CFR Part 622. Because the longline boundary moves 

out to 50 fathoms west of Cape San Blas, new 20-fathom boundary 

coordinates would be established through this rule for waters off Cape 

San Blas to the U.S. and Mexico border.