The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met virtually June 15 – 18, 2020. The following is a brief overview of what was accomplished.
Fishing Access and Possession Allowances in Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps Marine Protected Areas
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council took final action on a document that considers modifying surface trolling provisions and possession allowances in Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps Marine Protected Areas. The Council recommends prohibiting all fishing year-round in both Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps. The fishing prohibition does not include fishing for Atlantic Highly Migratory Species. The Council also recommends prohibiting the possession of any Gulf reef fish species year-round, except for vessels with a vessel monitoring system (VMS) and a valid commercial reef fish permit that are in transit, with all fishing gear stowed.
Fishing activity is limited in Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps to protect gag grouper spawning aggregations. Currently, no bottom fishing is allowed in those areas, but surface trolling is permitted from May 1 – October 31. It is difficult to enforce the no-bottom-fishing regulation when surface trolling is allowed, and the Council heard concerns that illegal recreational bottom fishing is occurring in the areas. Prohibiting fishing and possession of reef fish within Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps Marine Protected Areas is expected to reduce fishing activity and make law enforcement easier in the areas.
The Council will submit these proposed changes to the Secretary of Commerce for approval and implementation. The Council will request that the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Division of NOAA Fisheries consider making regulations for highly migratory species that are consistent with these new requirements.
Coastal Migratory Pelagics and Red Drum Advisory Panels
The Council made preliminary selections to populate the Coastal Migratory Pelagics and Red Drum Advisory Panels. Candidates will undergo a fisheries violation background check before official appointment to the advisory panels during the August Council meeting.
Red Snapper State Data Collection Programs and Calibrations
The Council heard an update on each Gulf state’s recreational data collection program and 2020 red snapper season. Texas has a year-round red snapper season in state waters and set a 63-day federal season from June 1 – August 2, 2020. Louisiana opened its private recreational red snapper season for weekends only (Friday – Sunday) on May 22, 2020. Thus far, 22% of Louisiana’s state allocation has been harvested and the state will announce a season closure date when it anticipates reaching its allocation. Mississippi opened its season seven days a week beginning May 22. Similar to past seasons, Mississippi will implement a two- or three-week mid-season closure in July and aims to keep the season open through Labor Day. Alabama opened its season (Friday – Monday) on May 22, 2020. So far, 50% of Alabama’s quota has been harvested and the season is expected to close on July 19. Florida opened its season on June 11 and it will remain open through July 24, 2020.
The Council was presented with an update on the preliminary calibrations for recreational red snapper harvest between the state data collection programs and the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The Council will need to consider how to move forward to ensure that overfishing does not occur based on the calibrations. The Council could consider using the calibration ratios, once finalized, to adjust the state-specific Annual Catch Limits established in Amendment 50: State Management of Recreational Red Snapper; or, it could create a buffer on the state-specific Annual Catch Limits.
The Council requested that a state/federal calibration workshop to be held, and a report completed, by the August Council meeting. NOAA’s Office of Science and Technology plans to hold this workshop with representatives from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to review the calibration methods and discuss refinement of the calibration ratios used for each state. Following the workshop, the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee will meet to review the proceedings of the calibration workshop and provide any recommendations and feedback to the Council in August.
Industry Impacts Due to COVID-19
The Department of Commerce provided an update on the Federal Fisheries Assistance Package, which is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Funding for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas will be administered through the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and funding for Florida will be administered through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commercial, recreational, and for-hire fishery businesses are eligible for assistance if they experienced at least a 35% loss in revenue. Each state is responsible for determining the amount of revenue loss for businesses and for determining spending plans.
The Council heard a summary of comments detailing how COVID-19 has impacted fishing around the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA Fisheries presented the Council with landings data showing a slight decrease in the commercial landings and the price of red snapper, gag, and red grouper since the pandemic started. The decrease in commercial harvest and price are not significantly different from trends from previous years. Recreational data collection programs were interrupted by the pandemic in mid-March, April, and May in most of the Gulf states; thus, landings estimates are not yet available. The Council decided to wait until its next meeting before providing recommendations on whether to modify management to mitigate impacts from COVID-19.
The Council was presented with the results of SEDAR 67: Gulf of Mexico Vermilion Snapper Stock Assessment. The assessment determined that vermilion snapper is not overfished and is not experiencing overfishing. The assessment used updated recreational catch and effort estimates from the Marine Recreational Information Program’s Fishing Effort Survey. Based on the results of the assessment, the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee recommended a constant catch Overfishing Limit of 8,600,000 pounds whole weight and an Acceptable Biological Catch of 7,270,000 pounds whole weight. The Council will initiate a framework action to increase the vermilion snapper overfishing limit, acceptable biological catch, and annual catch limits based on the stock assessment results.
The Council reviewed Reef Fish Amendment 53 which considers modifying red grouper commercial and recreational sector allocations and catch limits based on the results of the latest stock assessment (SEDAR 61). The assessment showed that the red grouper stock is lower than it has ever been. Additionally, the assessment used the new Marine Recreational Information Program’s Fishing Effort Survey landings and effort estimates, which increased the estimates of recreational harvest. NOAA Fisheries presented the predicted recreational closure dates and season lengths based on the Annual Catch Target options in the Amendment. Each alternative, other than the No Action alternative, is predicted to result in a recreational closure prior to the end of the year. The Council will hold public hearings later this year to gather feedback on this amendment and request that the Reef Fish Advisory Panel provide recommendations before taking final action.
Commercial Electronic Logbooks
The Council heard a presentation on the development of an electronic logbook program for commercial fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. The goal of electronic logbooks is to improve the accuracy and timeliness of the data reported by commercial reef fishermen. A 2015 pilot study indicated that electronic logbooks were feasible for the industry, noting that captains in the study said additional data entry requirements were acceptable and that a variety of hardware should be available to report catch. NOAA Fisheries noted that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would need to develop an amendment to make electronic logbooks mandatory in the commercial fishing sector. The Council will continue this discussion at its August meeting.
Southeast For-Hire Electronic Reporting Program
NOAA Fisheries presented details on the development and implementation of the Southeast For-Hire Electronic Reporting Program. The final rule for the Gulf of Mexico is expected to be published July with an effective date of September 1, 2020. However, at its last meeting, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council requested that the implementation date for its program be delayed until at least January 2021. The Council and NOAA Fisheries indicated that it would be advantageous if both Gulf and South Atlantic Programs become effective on the same date. Additionally, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission noted that additional time would allow for better development of validation procedures and dockside survey protocols in conjunction with the states. The Council recommended that NOAA Fisheries delay the effective date of the Southeast For-Hire Electronic Reporting Program for vessels with Gulf permits until January 1, 2021 and that both Gulf and South Atlantic rules become effective on the same date.
The Council also decided to request that NOAA Fisheries work with Mississippi to discuss the integration of the Southeast For-Hire Electronic Reporting Program with the Tails ‘n Scales state data collection program.
Extending the Terms of Council Chairman and Vice Chairman
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Council business has not been conducted in its normal manner or at its usual pace. The Council said that it would be difficult for a new Chairman and Vice Chairman to take those positions during these irregular circumstances and decided to allow a temporary exception to the Council Chairman and Vice Chairman’s two-year term limit for the upcoming year, allowing them to serve a third term. Election of Council Chairman and Vice Chairman will occur at the August meeting.