General
It’s that time of year again when most of us take stock of
the year behind and begin to look forward to the year ahead. In the Gulf
federal fisheries world, this year was characterized, yet again, with recreational
quota closures for three of our “most wanted” species; gray triggerfish,
amberjack, and red snapper. The Gulf Council recognizes the inconvenience this
presents for anglers and took some major strides forward this year toward solving
these issues for the future. Let’s take a look at where we’ve been and where
we’re headed for each of these three overfished species.

Photo: G.P. Schmahl, FGBNMS 
Gray Triggerfish
Unfortunately, there was no federal recreational gray
triggerfish season in 2017. This happened because the recreational harvest in
2016 more than doubled the annual catch limit. For an overfished stock like
gray triggerfish, exceeding the annual catch limit generates a pay-back
accountability measure. Meaning, if an annual catch limit is exceeded, then the
following year’s annual catch limit is reduced to account for the overage. Since
the gray triggerfish overage in 2016 was so large, the payback didn’t leave
enough quota to open a 2017 federal season. Fortunately, since we didn’t have a
season, we didn’t over harvest our quota this year. So, in 2018, recreational anglers
will have their entire annual catch limit to land.
Also, this year, the Council received a stock assessment for
gray triggerfish and took final action on Reef Fish Amendment 46 in hopes of
finding management measures that will rebuild the stock, while minimizing
season interruptions for recreational anglers. The amendment establishes a
9-year rebuilding timeline for gray triggerfish and retains the annual catch
limits and annual catch targets set in Reef Fish Amendment 37. Additionally,
the amendment reduces the recreational bag limit to 1-fish per person per day,
increases the recreational minimum size limit to 15-inches fork length, and
creates a January – February recreational closed season.
The final rule for the Gray Triggerfish Rebuilding plan will
be effective on January 16, 2018 so, the recreational triggerfish season will
open on January 1st with a 2-fish bag limit and 14-inch fork length minimum
size limit as usual. Then, once the rule is finalized, recreational triggerfish
will close for the new January – February closed season and when it opens back
up in March, we’ll have a 1-fish bag limit and 15-inch fork length minimum size
limit.

Greater Amberjack
Photo: G.P. Schmahl, FGBNMS
The recreational greater amberjack season closed on March 24,
2017. The short season, like with gray triggerfish, was partially caused
by a limited quota that resulted from a payback for overharvest in 2016. This
year’s quota was also over harvested by about 40%.
The good news is the Council took a few actions this year to
mitigate the shrinking recreational season. First, the Framework Action to
Modify the Greater Amberjack Rebuilding Plan sets new annual catch limits
through 2020 and closes the recreational season on January 27, 2018, in hopes of
allowing for a fall season. A second Framework Action adjusts the recreational
fishing year so that quotas are renewed on August 1 each year, rather than at
the beginning of each calendar year. This second framework also opens the
recreational season in the month of May and again August through October.
The second Framework Action to Modify the Greater Amberjack
Fishing Year and the Recreational Fixed Closed Season, has been finalized by
the Council but is still awaiting approval and implementation by the Secretary
of Commerce. Since the Rebuilding Plan has been approved as of December 21,
2017, there will be a short recreational season opening from January 1-26,
2018, but the recreational season will then close on January 27th.
The Framework Action to Modify the Recreational Closed Season and Fishing year
will publish sometime in early 2018, and the recreational season will then be
open for the month of May, and again August through October.
Red Snapper
Photo: NOAA
This year’s recreational red snapper season opened on June 1,
as usual. The federal for-hire season was opened for 49 continuous days, and
closed at midnight July 19th. The federal private recreational
season was opened for 3 days and closed at midnight June 3rd. The
private recreational season was very short due to a number of factors. First, the
previous year’s quota was exceeded so, the payback accountability measure
reduced the 2017 annual catch target. Next, catches in state water seasons
count against the federal quota and state water seasons have increased steadily
since 2012. In fact, private anglers were projected to catch about 81% of the
annual catch target within state water seasons this year. Additionally, as the stock
rebuilds, red snapper are easier to catch than ever. As catch rates increase we
harvest more fish in less time.
Upon completion of the short federal private recreational
season set by NOAA Fisheries, the Department of Commerce announced an agreement
between the Secretary of Commerce and the five Gulf States to re-open the private
red snapper season. The Gulf States agreed to align Federal and State private
angler red snapper seasons for the remainder of the summer which allowed for 39
additional weekend days and holidays to be open. The private angling season was
open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from June 16 through September 4th,
including July 3, July 4, and September 4.
So, you may be wondering what we can expect for 2018. The
Department of Commerce rule, which opened the extended red snapper season this
year, did not change the red snapper quota and private recreational landings
from this past year substantially exceeded the quota. At this point we are not
sure what the 2018 federal red snapper recreational seasons will be, as it
depends on whether accountability measures need to be applied. Since Amendment
44 changed the definition of overfished for the red snapper population and,
even though it is still in a rebuilding program, it will soon no longer be
considered to be overfished. We also are in the midst of a red snapper stock
assessment, but it won’t be finished in time for management changes to affect the
season.
Looking further into the future does provide a bit more hope
for recreational red snapper management. First, the Council is actively working
on management considerations that would allow each Gulf state to manage their
own historical portion of the recreational red snapper annual catch limit. The Council
has been working through the challenges associated with delegation of management
to the States and the Ad Hoc Red Snapper Private Recreational Advisory Panel is
expected to review the progress of State Management in January of 2018. Next,
in addition to the standard red snapper stock assessment that is currently
underway, an independent team of scientists has been awarded a total of $12
million to estimate the number of red snapper in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of
Mexico. Perhaps, a better understanding of the stock will yield better fishing
opportunities.
Shrimp Amendment 17B
– Yield, Threshold Number of Permits and Transit Provisions
This amendment will be effective as of January 22, 2018. The
amendment defines and aggregate maximum sustainable yield of 112,531,374 pounds
of tails and an aggregate optimum yield of 85,761,596 pounds of tails. It also
sets minimum threshold number of active shrimp permits at 1072 and mandates
that the Council convene a review panel to review the details of a permit pool
if the number of permits reaches 1,175. This amendment also allows vessels possessing
shrimp to transit through federal waters without a federal permit if their
trawl doors and nets are out of the water the bag straps are removed.
Finally, there is one very important document that hasn’t
been mentioned which may have huge implications on our seasons moving forward. Reef
Fish Amendment 44, finalized by the Council this summer, revises the minimum
stock size threshold – which is the value used to determine whether or not a
stock is considered to overfished. The Council selected the option which would
set the minimum stock size threshold for gag, red grouper, red snapper,
vermillion snapper, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack and hogfish equal to
50% of the biomass at maximum sustainable yield. This will effectively remove
red snapper and gray triggerfish from overfished status. Since payback
provision accountability measures only apply to overfished species, red snapper
and gray triggerfish will no longer be subject to such reductions that have
recently contributed to the short recreational seasons. This document, like
some of the others mentioned, still awaits approval and implementation by the
Secretary of Commerce.

It might be obvious by now that we’re waiting on a few different
regulations to be finalized early in 2018. In January, the recreational
regulations will be a bit confusing for both gray triggerfish and greater
amberjack as we await implementation of management measures early in 2018. We
don’t expect to know much about the 2018 recreational red snapper season until
sometime in April. Be sure to stay in touch by subscribing to our news updates,
following us on Facebook, or periodically checking our website. We’re also
happy to chat with you about any questions you may have. Call our offices at
(813) 348-1630 if you have any questions.