Atlantic commercial grouper harvest is shutting down

All commercial harvest of shallow-water groupers from federal South Atlantic waters ends Saturday — and stays closed for more than six months.

The closure announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service has been triggered by estimates that the commercial 352,940-pound annual catch limit for gag grouper, considered an overfished species, has been reached.

To protect gag grouper from being harvested accidentally, all commercial fishing for all shallow-water species in waters covered by the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council must end at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and will be closed throughout the remainder of 2012.

Recreational fishing for grouper in federal waters will not close until Jan. 1, when a regular four-month closure for commercial and recreational grouper fishing starts.

“Commercial harvest of shallow-water grouper will not reopen until May 1, 2013,” the National Marine Fisheries Service says.

The closure covers red grouper and black grouper, two species prized by Florida Keys fishermen.

Last year, Monroe County commercial harvesters returned to dock with 51,346 pounds of black grouper and 46,169 pounds of red grouper, according to preliminary findings from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Also covered by the commercial grouper closure in federal waters, from North Carolina to Key West, are scamp, red hind, rock hind, yellowmouth grouper, yellowfin grouper, graysby, and coney.

At its December meeting, the South Atlantic council will consider a move to allow fishing for the shallow-water grouper species even when the gag grouper limit is reached.

Tom Hill of Key Largo Fisheries told the Miami Herald that the fish house may have to lay off employees who process grouper.

“It’s sad we’re not using proper science to make good decisions,” Hill said. “We need a good stock assessment and we’re not getting it.”

The closure does not affect state waters or federal Gulf of Mexico waters. And commercial fishermen with regular federal snapper-grouper permits can fish for grouper under recreational bag limits but cannot legally sell their catch.

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