Thursday, December 27, 2018

Gulf Council 2018 End of Year Review

We’ve made another trip around the sun and once again, we have an opportunity to look back on the year behind us and look forward to the year ahead. 2018 was yet another fascinating year in fisheries management. We’re working on major changes in the management of red snapper and we tweaked cobia and greater amberjack regulations. Not surprisingly, 2019 is already shaping up to be an action-packed year with red snapper and red grouper management taking center stage in the Gulf of Mexico. Keep reading for a perspective on what we have accomplished in 2018 and where we’re headed in 2019.
Photo: Mike Jennings

Red Snapper
Red snapper management is usually pretty exciting, thankfully, the excitement of 2018 seems to be a bit more optimistic than it has been in years past. The year started off on the right foot, a stock assessment determined that red snapper is not considered overfished, nor is it experiencing overfishing. As a result, the Council increased the red snapper annual catch limit by 1.25 million pounds, allowing up to 15.1 million pounds of harvest. The Council also decided to reduce the buffer set between the federal for-hire annual catch limit and annual catch target from 20% to 9%; this should permit those anglers to catch more of their allowance of red snapper without putting them in jeopardy of overharvesting their annual catch limit.

Photo: Tom Jenkins
Next, the Council continued its work to allow the Gulf states more management control over recreational red snapper. In 2018, while the Council focused on developing its State Management documents, the management of the private angling component of the recreational red snapper sector was handled by the states through Exempted Fishing Permits. The red snapper private angling allocation was divided among the states, and each state set its own season in the federal waters of the Gulf. These same Exempted Fishing Permits extend through the 2019 fishing season. Also in 2019, the Council will work to finalize Reef Fish Amendment 50, which would allow the states some management authority over recreational red snapper on a more permanent basis. In fact, we’re in the process of hosting public hearings to gather your thoughts on that proposal. For more information on how to contribute visit this website:

Red Grouper
Photo: Hubbard's Marina
Over the course of 2018, the Council heard from fishermen who expressed concern for what appears to be a declining red grouper stock. While there is a red grouper stock assessment underway, the results of that assessment aren’t expected until late 2019. In light of this, the Council requested an interim analysis that could be used to provide harvest recommendations while awaiting the stock assessment results. That analysis showed that landings have been significantly below the annual catch limits, which indicates that the stock may not be large enough to sustain current harvest levels. After hearing recommendations from its scientific advisors, the Council requested that NOAA Fisheries implement an interim rule to establish annual catch limits based on 2017 landings.

For 2019, NOAA Fisheries has already announced that it is withholding a portion of commercial IFQ as it works to publish the interim rule to reduce the annual catch limit. The Council has initiated a framework amendment to reduce the catch limits beyond the interim rule until it can provide longer term catch recommendations based on the stock assessment. We expect that red grouper will be in the spotlight throughout much of 2019 so stay tuned.

Greater Amberjack
You probably noticed that a new recreational greater amberjack season hit the books in 2018. From here forward, the recreational season is scheduled to open for the month of May and then again August through October. The only complicating factor is that the fishing year has also changed so the quota renews on August 1st, rather than on January 1st like the rest of our reef fish. This means that any quota overages are more likely to affect the May season than the August – October fall season since the quota starts anew in August.

Photo: Scott Hickman
In 2018, the Council decided to increase the cobia minimum size limit to 36 inches fork length. This decision came after the Council heard from anglers that believe that the cobia stock is struggling. We’re anxiously awaiting the cobia stock assessment which is scheduled to begin in 2019 and the new size limit is expected to be implemented sometime in the new year as well.

For-Hire Electronic Reporting
Two years ago, the Council finalized an Amendment to require federally permitted charter and headboat vessels to electronically report their catch for each trip before offloading fish. The Amendment also requires each vessel to have a device permanently affixed to the vessel that, at a minimum, archives vessel position data. The new reporting requirements are expected to come online in 2019. The requirement to report catch will begin sometime in spring and the requirement to have positioning hardware will begin in the fall. The Council is partnering with NOAA Fisheries to host workshops and mail informational materials to all federally permitted for-hire operators in the Gulf. If this action affects you, stay tuned for more information on what you’ll be required to do.