Florida red grouper quota reallocation angers commercial-fishing sector

A red grouper being reeled in by a fisherman.

A reallocation of the Gulf of Mexico red grouper catch limits has angered the region’s commercial fishing sector, which stands to lose a sizeable portion of its share of the catch to recreational anglers.

Amendment 53, which was announced by NOAA on Monday, 2 May, and which will go into effect 1 June, 2022, amends the fishery management plan for reef fish resources in the Gulf of Mexico so that the allocation of the red grouper catch to the commercial sector is lowered from 76 percent to 59.3 percent, while increasing the recreational catch-share from 24 percent to 40.7 percent.

The cause for the change is a revision in the estimate for historical recreational landings, with the newly implemented Marine Recreational Information Program Fishing Effort Survey revealing far higher recreational landings than previously known. As a result of the new data, as well as several other factors such as discard and mortality averages, new figures released for the 2022 season will lower the commercial side’s catch limit from 3.16 million pounds to 2.53 million pounds, while the recreational sector will have a 1.73-million-pound catch limit, down from 2.1 million pounds.

Regional commercial fishing groups and environmental non-governmental organizations have responded to the change with fury and disbelief.

“The ostensible purpose of Amendment 53 is to account for new data from NOAA Fisheries based on the Marine Recreational Information Program Fishing Effort Survey, which indicated the recreational sector catches more red grouper than previously estimated,” a statement issued by the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, and the A.P. Bell Fish Company said. “But instead of using these new data to spark a discussion about better management and more accountability to ensure all fishermen stay within their catch limits, NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council chose to use these new data to literally ‘rewrite history’ to justify taking 32 percent of the commercial sector’s quota and giving it to the recreational sector.”

Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Executive Director Carrie Simmons said both sides were facing with an overall reduction in their total catch in 2022 due to red tides in Florida, to which red grouper are particularly susceptible. However, a separate action proposed by the council on 3 May would increase the total catch limit for 2022 by about 700,000 pounds. The council advanced the increase because scientists found the red grouper stock in the Gulf of Mexico – and 99 percent of red grouper landings there originate to Florida – was higher than previously estimated, Simmons told SeafoodSource.

“The reductions came because the stock wasn’t overfished but wasn’t in great shape either. But we recently found we had more fish biomass than we previously thought,” Simmons said. “We saw the stock was rebounding and fishermen are reporting seeing larger fish.”

But the council’s lead fishery biologist, Ryan Rindone, acknowledged that even the new recreational fishing effort survey has an error range of 20 percent – much higher than the 1 to 5 percent range for the commercial sector.

The use of the new survey, despite its flaws, and the resulting overall loss in catch for the commercial sector did not sit well with Southern Offshore Fishing Association President Ed Maccini.

“Somehow NOAA Fisheries took this new recreational FES survey, magically revised 35 years of data about what recreational anglers caught in the past, and told us that commercial fishermen need to give up some of our quota so these anglers get more fish to catch in the future,” Maccini said.  “But unlike commercial fishermen who report and weigh every pound of fish we land, recreational anglers don’t have to report what they catch or even be accurate in what they choose to report. It’s all basically guesswork by NOAA Fisheries.  And now they’re taking our quota away based on these highly uncertain and wildly changing estimates.”

Wild Seafood Co. Owner Jason DeLaCruz and Cortez, Florida-based A.P. Bell Fish Company Owner and President Karen Bell said in a press release that while NOAA’s move to augment the upcoming season’s quota is “a positive step,” the new action only augments issues in the fishery and will cost fishermen millions. 

“Without the reallocation under Amendment 53, commercial fishermen should be receiving 76 percent of the new proposed 4.96-million-pound annual catch limit (ACL) – which would have been an approximately 600,000 pound increase from the 2021 quota. Instead, under the two actions NOAA Fisheries took this week, commercial fishermen will be limited to a 2.94 million pound ACL and 2.79 million pound annual catch target (ACT)," they said. "This reduction represents a significant loss in commercial fishing access, millions of dollars in lost revenue to commercial fishing families, and hundreds of thousands fewer grouper servings available for the seafood-consuming public. Furthermore, this new 2.79 million pound quota is still 210,000 pounds less than the quota level commercial fishermen were operating under prior to Amendment 53. The forthcoming slight quota increase, while generally a positive sign for the red grouper population, does not restore the commercial quota to the level it was in recent years and falls far short of what the commercial sector and seafood consumers would have access to without the reallocation from Amendment 53.”

The Gulf Coast Seafood Alliance has pointed to issues with Amendment 53 that could potentially lead to a legal challenge, and some of its assertions are backed by a minority report signed by four council members that raises objections to the new allocations made under Amendment 53 – most notably a possible violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Additionally, environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Fund have opposed Amendment 53.

“Much of our U.S. work supports the development and implementation of fishery management best practices and climate resilience. Key to progress in these areas is ensuring that fishery management policies are rooted in sound public process, are consistent with governing laws, and use the best available science. It is through this lens that we respectfully request that you reject Amendment 53 in its current form and send it back to the Gulf Council for further consideration, following the Gulf Council’s designated allocation review process,” EDF said in a statement directed at NOAA.

The National Fisheries Institute, the Charter Fisherman’s Association, and the National Restaurant Association also oppose Amendment 53.

“Amendment 53 will establish a worrisome precedent against the science-driven, collaborative MSA framework. That framework has enabled NMFS and the fishery management councils to restore dozens of significant fisheries to maximum sustainable yield and then to keep them there in the face of conservation and other headwinds,” NFI said in a statement. “But if one sector can successfully engineer a dramatic reallocation in the red grouper fishery as proposed here, that will tempt others to seek similar, one-sided outcomes in other, completely unrelated fisheries that (like this one) do not face sustainability disaster. Gulf Council management of the red snapper fishery in recent years has already prompted similar concerns from environmental advocates, commercial seafood producers, Gulf Council members, and other parties. This will undermine the MSA framework and if repeated often enough will cause its collapse.”

Photo courtesy of FtLaud/Shutterstock


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