The letter, from NMFS Regional Administrator Dr. Roy Crabtree to SAFMC Chairman Duane Harris thanked the SAFMC for their hard work on Amendment 16 and the Interim Rule but cited several reasons the NMFS had decided not to support the Interim Rule and promised to work for expeditious implementation of Amendment 16.
At their fall meeting, the SAFMC approved regulations to implement a four month closure on shallow water groupers that would begin on January 1 and go through the end of March. They also approved reducing the allowed commercial poundage for the year and reducing the recreational bag limits. This is Amendment 16 and the approving vote was 8-5.
The timing was too short to approve these changes through regular channels in time for the proposed January 1 starting date, so the SAFMC voted, by the same margin, to ask the NMFS to implement an Interim Rule to this effect while it underwent review by the Secretary of Commerce. The reasoning for asking for the Interim Rule was to immediately reduce the suspected overfishing. An Interim Rule is in effect for 180 days and can be extended for an additional 186 days if deemed necessary.
The Council submitted Amendment 16 and the associated Interim Rule on October 21, 2008. On October 28, 2008, NMFS sent the South Atlantic coastal states letters requesting expedited coastal zone management consistency determinations within a 30-day time frame.
Because most South Atlantic coastal states have not yet responded to NMFS' request for expedited review of the interim rule under the Coastal Zone Management Act, and one state has explicitly rejected expedited review, it appears unlikely the agency could publish an Interim Rule earlier than February 2009. A rule published February 1, 2009, would not go into effect until early March-halfway into the Council's proposed seasonal closure. As a result, the conservation benefits of the interim rule would be greatly diminished.
In anticipation of the proposed January-April closure, some commercial fishermen have not purchased bait and supplies, and some for-hire fishermen have been unable to book trips. In the letter to the SAFMC, NMFS stated it does not believe the limited conservation benefits gained by implementing the rule two months or more behind schedule justify the impacts fishermen are expected to bear while awaiting a decision, particularly when permanent regulations specified in Amendment 16 could be implemented in late spring or early summer.
The Council's long-term plan for addressing overfishing and protecting spawning grouper species in Amendment 16 is undergoing Secretarial review and will provide increased public comment and notice opportunities. The Notice of Availability for Amendment 16 was scheduled to publish in the Federal Register Christmas week.
After Secretarial review, Amendment 16 will become effective in the not-too-distant future. It includes provisions to implement a closure from January 1 through the end of April, reduce the total commercial catch for gag grouper to 352,940 pounds (gutted weight), close the commercial shallow water grouper fishery after this quota has been caught and reduce the total recreational grouper bag limit from 5 to 3 grouper and in that limit reduce the allowed catch of gag grouper from 2 fish to 1 fish.
There already is a commercial closure of grouper season during March and April and this will continue until Amendment 16 is implemented. Under current regulations, possession of a recreational limit of grouper is allowed during March and April, but any sale or purchase is prohibited.
For more information on this or any other federal regulations in the southeast Atlantic Ocean, visit the SAFMC website at www.safmc.net.