Naples, FL – Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) applauds a precedent-setting decision by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) to deny the creation of two arbitrary no-fishing zones in the Gulf of Mexico. The resolution allows recreational anglers to continue to troll for coastal pelagic species on the surface while restricting bottom fishing for stressed gag grouper stocks in the Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps areas, off the Florida coast.
“We are very pleased that the Council based its decision on the science,” said Fred Miller, chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee. “This is the conservation measure we had in mind when CCA first offered its support of closed areas for gag grouper stocks in 1999. The process was much more difficult than it needed to be, but the Council did the right thing. The end result is sound management of the resource based on science, without an arbitrary closure to trolling.”
In 1999, it was determined that the Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps areas are home to significant spawning aggregations of gag grouper. CCA supported the initial proposal to close the areas to all bottom fishing to recover those stocks. However, when the proposal expanded to include banning all fishing in the two areas, CCA filed suit in federal district court, arguing that preventing fishing for unrelated and healthy fish stocks in the mid- to upper-levels of the water column was unnecessary to conserve gag grouper residing on the bottom, 200 to 400 feet below the surface.
In a settlement agreement between CCA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reached in 2001, NMFS agreed not to ban trolling for coastal pelagics in the closed areas until research could determine if it was possible for recreational fishermen trolling on the surface for mackerel, wahoo and other species to catch gag grouper. The research, conducted by NMFS in June 2003, clearly demonstrated that it is virtually impossible to do so, providing the scientific basis for the Council to deny the implementation of the blanket no-fishing zones.
“We have contended all along that surface trolling in the reserves would not impact spawning gag grouper,” said Alex Jernigan, chairman of CCA’s Gulf of Mexico Fishery Committee. “This decision is a good compromise and it shows that the Council is adhering to the original intention to create the reserves for gag grouper while allowing non-harmful recreational trolling."
The Council’s decision will maintain a total ban on bottom fishing in the two areas, allow surface trolling from May to November and close the areas to all fishing during the winter months when gag grouper gather there to spawn. The Council also adopted CCA’s recommendation to provide an additional conservation measure by prohibiting the possession of any reef fish while in the Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps areas.
CCA opposes regulations that prohibit recreational fishing access unless it can be scientifically determined that recreational fishermen are the cause of a specific conservation problem and traditional conservation measures are inadequate. •