cobia face

Photo provded

This big cobia would have still been a keeper under the new size limit, but a lot of the brown bombers caught in Charlotte Harbor will have to go back in the water.

I have had interesting debates about whether hurricanes or tornadoes are worse. I spent my early youth living in tornado alley in the Midwest before moving here in the 1970s, so I have some experience with both of these meteorological manifestations.

Tornadoes are smaller and carve a much narrower path of destruction, but you don’t get much warning. When the sirens sound, you had better hunker down right now — the storm might be atop you in a matter of moments.

Hurricanes are huge compared to tornadoes and they can stay intact for quite a long time, so the area of destruction can be many, many times larger than that of a tornado. But with hurricanes you get some warning, usually a few days at least.

It’s helpful to have time to go into storm prep mode for a hurricane while it’s still a couple of days away, but the flip side is that you then have to sit and wait in agony until it arrives. Last year’s Irma was a perfect example. Southwest Floridians nervously watched hurricane forecast tracks for nearly a week in advance.

So, which do you want? Would you prefer a hurricane with its advance warning? Or would you rather get smacked in the face by a tornado with little time to prepare, but not have to sit and wait for it?

I pondered a similar question recently when I read a press release from the Gulf Council encaspulating the results of the Council’s October meeting. Within the document’s paragraphs were some storm warnings for Gulf anglers — advance warning of federal fishery regulations changes which are headed our way. Some of these squalls will hit us in a few months, while others might be a year or more from impact.

Cobia

Proposed changes to cobia regulations are interesting because they are not based on scientific need — they’re based on the input from recreational anglers who went to the Gulf Council and reported that they are seeing fewer and smaller cobia than in years past. Most of these reports appear to have come from anglers in the northern Gulf.

A stock assessment on Gulf cobia will be started next year, but it is probably two years from now before any useful data from that assessment makes its way to regulators. So the Council opted to be proactive and reduce the cobia harvest before the stock assessment results are known. I’m pretty sure that it’s a good thing that the Council is listening to anglers and taking action, but it makes me a little nervous.

In any event, the Council has voted to increase the size limit of cobia in Gulf federal waters from 33 inches to 36 inches (both fork length). It will take a while for the new regulations to be drafted, publicized, approved by the Secretary of Commerce (what, you didn’t know that the U.S. Secretary of Commerce has to approve federal fishing regulations?) and finally enacted, but it’s possible that by sometime next year the rules could be in place. Then it would be up to each of the states around the Gulf to decide whether to match the federal regulations in state waters.

Red Grouper

It appears that red grouper might be in trouble once again. Landings are low and the allowable catch for the Gulf has not been harvested for the last few years. As a result, fishery managers think the stock is in need of additional protection.

The Council has asked NOAA Fisheries to enact an emergency order which lowers the annual allowable catch to the level that was actually harvested in 2017. This greatly increases the odds that there will be a mid-year closure of red grouper next year if the fishing is decent during the summer.

While this emergency order is in effect, the Gulf Council will work on a permanent reduction in the allowable catch, a process that can easily take a year. It’s likely that during this process that the Council will look at ways to reduce the red grouper harvest and will probably consider some combination of reduced bag limits, increased size limits and/or closed seasons. This will probably play out next year, though it might be as late as 2020 before regulations hit the street.

Mangrove Snapper

Here’s a storm that’s been quietly brewing for a while, but which is just now starting to rumble our way. Florida’s Gulf anglers haven’t seen any changes in the state or federal regulations for the harvest of mangrove snapper for many years. But the council has received assessment data that indicates that gray snapper (that’s what they call mangrove snapper) in the Gulf are experiencing overfishing.

The Council is now beginning to look at ways to reduce this overfishing and has asked its staff to produce a draft plan for review at the January Council meeting. These things move amazingly slowly, but a year from now we should have an idea how the Council will act to reduce the harvest of mangrove snapper in federal waters of the Gulf. As with red grouper, the available tools are smaller bag limits, larger size limits and closed seasons.

Red Snapper

The history of management of red snapper in the Gulf is so bizarre that a book could (and probably should) be written about it — not that anyone would believe it was nonfiction. It’s been contentious, inefficient and serves as the perfect example of the flawed federal fishery management council system. One of the few things that almost everybody involved in the process can agree on is that the system has not worked very well for this fishery.

A recent turn of events has been the Gulf Council agreeing to give up some of its responsibility for managing the red snapper fishery to the individual states around the Gulf. This process has been lumbering slowly along for a couple of years, but is nearing fruition as decisions are being finalized on exactly how this will work. Maybe it will be a good thing, time will tell.

My question is this: Since the exact same council process is used to manage many other fish in the Gulf (and in coastal waters all around the country), why is this dramatic change in policy being limited to one single species of fish? Why not all the snappers, groupers, cobia, amberjack, king mackerel and on down the line? And is it a sign that we might not need the councils at all? I wonder if we’ll hear that discussion in the near future.

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.

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