Deep-water ban on grouper, snapper comes to an end

A 16-month ban on fishing for several types of deep-water fish off the Florida Keys disappeared Thursday.

The prohibition against taking seven grouper and snapper species from waters deeper than 240 feet ended when the National Marine Fisheries Service published a revised rule in the May 10 Federal Register.

Two overfished species the deepwater ban sought to protect — Warsaw grouper and speckled hind — remain illegal to harvest and possess. However, recreational and commercial anglers now can resume fishing in deep water for snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, yellowedge grouper, misty grouper, queen snapper and silk snapper.

All bottom fishing for deep-water grouper and snapper species in South Atlantic waters deeper than 240 feet, from North Carolina to Key West, was prohibited on Jan. 31, 2011.

Fishery managers covered all the species to avoid an accidental bycatch of Warsaw grouper and speckled hind, which “typically do not survive being reeled up from such great depths,” Fisheries Service staff said.

After hearing from commercial and recreational fishermen, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to repeal the overall closure last August. The rule change Thursday made it official.

“There is evidence from both public comments and new analysis of data that the prohibition is not effective at its stated purpose and comes at a higher economic cost to fishermen than originally anticipated,” an agency statement says.

Speckled hind and Warsaw grouper are “two species of fish that most anglers will never encounter in a lifetime of fishing,” Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said earlier this year.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance, an advocacy group for anglers and spearfishers, sued in January 2011 in a failed bid to block the rule from orginally taking effect.

The Pew Environment Group, which supported the closure, called the repeal “a risky decision.”

“The problem is that speckled hind and Warsaw grouper can be caught accidentally by fishermen targeting other deep-water species, and too often these fish do not survive even if released,” Pew Project Director Holly Binns said in a prepared statement. “Their populations are so depleted that they cannot withstand these losses.”

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