Tough Decisions Ahead for Gulf Amberjack and Gag Grouper Fisheries

  • Greater amberjack are important recreational species in the Gulf of Mexico, providing recreational anglers and the charter boat industry with harvest opportunities when red snapper season is often closed.
  • Recent stock assessments for both greater amberjack and gag grouper indicated the stocks were overfished and undergoing overfishing, which require drastic reductions in the harvestable quota in the short-term along with rebuilding plans and conservative catch rates for the next several years.
  • The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) Senior Director of Fisheries Policy Chris Horton, attended last week’s Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) meeting in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Why it matters: Greater amberjack and gag grouper are important recreational species in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the most recent data available indicates both stocks have been depleted to the point that significant reductions in the number of greater amberjack and gag grouper that can be harvested each year are necessary. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will be grappling with how much of a reduction to take, as well as how to allocate what is available to harvest between the recreational and commercial sectors, in the coming months.

While red snapper usually dominates the Council’s reef fish committee agenda, that wasn’t the case during the April meeting. A greater amberjack stock assessment completed in 2020 indicated that, despite the most recent management changes in 2017 to constrain harvest, the greater amberjack stock was still overfished and undergoing overfishing. The Council is currently considering options to end overfishing and rebuild the stock under Amendment 54 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

In January of this year, the Council received notice from the Southeast Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service that gag grouper were also overfished and undergoing overfishing. An emergency rule will likely be necessary to implement interim measures to end overfishing of gag grouper in 2023 and give the Council the ability to develop a rebuilding plan through a new amendment to the reef fish management plan by 2024.

In both cases, the recent stock assessments for greater amberjack and gag grouper used the latest Marine Recreational Information Program’s (MRIP) Fishing Effort Survey (FES) numbers to calculate recreational harvest, adjusting the historic time series to reflect the higher recreational catch indicated by the FES. The current sector allocations (the percentage of the annual quota apportioned to each sector) between the recreational and commercial fisheries were originally set on the old historic landings data from decades ago and do not reflect the FES values, which recently have been deemed the best scientific information available (BSIA). While both fisheries will need to have significant reductions in overall quotas, if the allocations between the recreational and commercial sectors are not adjusted to reflect the FES numbers, recreational anglers will take a larger proportional reduction in access to these fisheries than the commercial sector. Keeping the current allocations that were set long ago on incorrect data will result in a de facto reallocation.

CSF submitted testimony to the Council on April 6 that supported ending overfishing of both of these important recreational fisheries. However, CSF also urged the Councils to reset the sector allocations to reflect the same historic sector harvest information that was used in the most recent stock assessments for greater amberjack and gag grouper. Doing so would be consistent with managing based on the best science that is currently available.

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