CCA Florida Calls Out NOAA Fisheries Management Efforts

May 15, 2024
Big gag grouper like this take years to attain adulthood, and are very rarely caught by anglers who are not many miles from shore. (Frank Sargeant)

If it takes a degree in fisheries sciences to work in NOAA fisheries management section—and we certainly hope it does, even in these DEI-tainted latter hours of the Republic--how do you think, in any imaginable state of coastal waters today, that shore based Florida anglers are going to catch over 100,000 pounds of keeper size gag grouper? 

Gags live in shallow water only the first year of their lives—the rest is spent many miles offshore. While a few keepers are caught from long piers, the 100,000 pound catch simply did not happen, and any knowledgeable fishery management system would have immediately questioned a report that included this data.

Yet, that’s what NOAA Fisheries released as part of their official estimate of annual catch as they attempted to justify virtual shutdown of one of the Sunshine State’s most important fisheries.

Now CCA Florida says state management of our fisheries is the only reasonable off ramp from fisheries chaos—that is, taking the responsibility for management of fish in federal waters, more than 9 NM offshore in the Gulf, 3 NM in the Atlantic, from the federal agency and giving it to the state fishery commissions.

Gags are reef species, most often found in today's Gulf at depths of 60 feet and more, with a few exceptions around the Big Bend of Florida. (Shimano)

Plagued by suspect data and erratic regulations for decades, it appears that even NOAA Fisheries may be embracing state management as an off ramp from the chaos this time around.

Here’s CCA’s assessment of the federal faux pas: 

In January, NOAA Fisheries released preliminary gag grouper catch estimates for the 49-day 2023 recreational season in the Gulf of Mexico. The total gag grouper catch – using the discredited Marine Recreational Information Program-Fishing Effort Survey (MRIP-FES) – was estimated at 1,677,591 pounds and was broken down into:

  • Private Angler: 1,399,513 pounds gross weight
  • Charter:162,832 pounds gross weight
  • Shore:106,602 pounds gross weight
  • Headboat – 8,644 pounds gross weight

The 2023 gag grouper catch limit for private anglers was 403,759 pounds, so a catch estimate that exceeded that limit by more than four times set off alarm bells and a storm of protest. 

It was particularly absurd because it reported 106,000 pounds of gag grouper caught from shore. 

Gags are tasty bottom fish that often reach sizes of 15 pounds and more, but they take years to get to that size. (Florida FWC)

NOAA Fisheries pledged to review the MRIP-FES numbers and, if warranted, adjust the final catch estimates. About a month later, in February 2024, NOAA announced that the Private Angler catch total was revised from 1.4 million pounds to 708,000 pounds, citing “outliers” in the data. 

But with the estimate still more than twice the allowed catch limit, a train wreck was still on the horizon.

Fortunately, the State of Florida’s reef fish survey (SRFS) was collecting data on gag grouper, and the SRFS Private Angler gag catch estimate was 240,000 pounds. Using the SRFS estimate and dropping the outlandish shore harvest, recreational anglers caught 411,476 pounds, including charter and headboat catches, during the 49-day season, a very slight overage suggesting very minor reductions in the 2024 season.

The State of Florida had already been approved to begin state management of gag in 2024 using the SRFS system, but at its meeting in April the Gulf Council announced it was dropping the shore estimate entirely and converting the 2023 annual catch limit into SRFS units, effectively implementing state management of gag retroactively to get out of their current mess.

When the dust cleared and the conversions were made, albeit somewhat mysteriously, the 2024 gag season went from non-existent to likely about half as long as last year.  

But had it not been for a more reliable and efficient state data collection program casting a floodlight on the utter failure of MRIP-FES, Florida anglers would have been facing yet another federal fisheries management calamity.

— Frank Sargeant