Offshore anglers are still reeling (or not reeling — get it?) from the Gulf Council’s recent short-notice closure on the harvest of red grouper from federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of that closure, no red grouper may be taken until Jan. 1 in waters more than nine nautical miles off our coast.
State fishery regulators have not yet instituted a similar closure in state waters, but in the past the FWC has tended to mirror federal regulations on groupers, so it would not be surprising if they closed the fishery in state waters. This action is on the agenda for consideration at next week’s FWC meeting.
A bigger issue may be looming for next year. This year’s closure was enacted on short notice because landings estimates based on catch surveys indicated that the recreational allocation of red grouper for the Gulf of Mexico was reached on about June 30, six months into the year.
But the closure did not take effect until Sept. 15 which was almost 11 weeks later. And since the summer months have historically yielded very high landings of red grouper in the Gulf, we may easily have caught as much as 50 percent more red grouper than our allocation this year.
This will be compounded by the fact that red grouper harvest is still ongoing in state waters —not only in Florida, but in other Gulf states as well. This harvest will get added to the total landings for the Gulf for 2021.
Why should we care? Because every pound of red grouper that is harvested in 2021 over and above the recreational allocation for the year will be subtracted from the recreational allocation for 2022.
If we ran 50 percent or more over this year in six months of fishing and the result is that we lose 50 percent of our allocation for next year, red grouper may only be open to harvest for a few months in 2022. That would be tough on the offshore fishing industry, since red grouper is a prime target species on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Speaking of the FWC, another agenda item for next week’s meeting is a proposal to open a limited harvest of goliath grouper in state waters. These fish have been a protected species since 1990, after being fished to near-extinction.
The goliath grouper population has since rebounded and these large animals have become an iconic species in Southwest Florida waters. We’ve all seen the photos of happy anglers posing alongside (and sometimes in the water with) huge just-caught goliaths prior to their release.
But there has been a push for many years to open harvest of these large fish. This is a very divisive issue, with strong opinions from anglers who want to see a harvest of goliaths and opinions that are just as strong from those who feel that they should remain a protected species.
Here are my thoughts: The proposal that the FWC will evaluate next week will be for such a small-scale and tightly controlled harvest that it will have no significant impact on the population of goliath grouper. But it would be the first legal harvest allowed in 30 years, and I suspect that as soon as it would be approved that a never-ending push to expand it would begin.
And we have proven that we can fish out goliath grouper. We did so 30 to 40 years ago, with far fewer anglers on the water and with far less efficient equipment than is now available to us. Adult goliaths tend to congregate in large numbers at a relatively small number of well-known offshore locations, mostly wrecks and manmade artificial reefs.
Back in the day we caught pretty much all of them without GPS, sidescan sonar or offshore-capable high-speed center consoles. I’m sure that if the season were opened without restriction, we could easily fish them out again.
I think that goliath grouper should be treated as trophy fish, the harvest prohibition should continue, and we should be happy that there is at least one species of reef fish with a healthy population. That strategy has worked pretty well for the tarpon fishery.
Recently a U.S. Coast Guard chopper was called to do a medevac from a commercial fishing boat some 40 miles offshore of Montauk, N.Y. On board the trawler Shelby Ann, a crewman suffered an injury from an estimated 300-pound stingray which left a six-inch barb stuck in his leg just below the knee.
I get the shivers just thinking about it. I’m pretty sure that folk remedies, such as applying meat tenderizer to the wound or peeing on it, would not have helped much.
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. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.