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December 19, 2008

NMFS decides not to implement interim grouper closure

The interim rule requested by the Council would have implemented a four-month spawning season closure for the three species beginning in January 2009
By Nmfs

The interim rule requested by the Council would have implemented a four-month spawning season closure for the three species beginning in January 2009, established a commercial quota for gag, and reduced recreational bag limits for the three species currently experiencing overfishing.  

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has decided not to implement the interim rule proposed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) to address overfishing of gag, red grouper, and black grouper in 2009.

At its September 2008 meeting, the Council approved Amendment 16 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan for the South Atlantic Region (Amendment 16) and requested an interim rule to address overfishing of gag, red grouper, and black grouper while Amendment 16 underwent Secretarial review. 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 are not purchasing bait and supplies, and some for-hire fishermen are unable to book trips. NMFS 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. For this reason, NMFS has decided not to implement the interim rule.

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 will publish in the Federal Register next week.