If you thought some of the fishing regulations were a little difficult to understand, you will be able to rest your case with the ongoing confusion over shallow water groupers.

  At their fall meeting, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) approved regulations to implement a four month closure on shallow water groupers that would begin on January 1 and go through the end of March.  They also approved reducing the allowed commercial poundage for the year and reducing the recreational bag limits.  This is Amendment 16 and the approving vote was 8-5.

The timing was too short to approve these changes through regular channels, so they voted, by the same margin, to ask the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to implement an Interim Rule to this effect.  The reasoning for asking for the Interim Rule was to reduce the suspected overfishing immediately.  An Interim Rule is in effect for 180 days and can be extended for an additional 186 days if deemed necessary.

The press release after the meeting noted all this and grouper fishermen began lobbying against the Interim Rule, though never expecting anything but a rubber-stamp compliance.  Grouper fishermen also began looking at other ways to generate income during the closure.  Outgoing N.C. Senator Elizabeth Dole joined the fishermen's cause and sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez asking him not to approve and sign the bill, but hopes were low.

Well, something has happened!  At the SAFMC winter meeting in early December, the NMFS said it had not yet drawn up or approved the Interim Rule.  A call to the SAFMC Charleston, S.C. office on December 18 confirmed this is still the situation.

In an e-mail reply, Kim Iverson, Public Information Officer for the SAFMC, explained that the NMFS has still not approved or disapproved the request for the Interim Rule.  In addition, federal law requires a 30-day "cooling off" period after the Interim Rule is approved before it could be implemented.  The earliest implementation date is now January 18 and it extends a day for every day the Interim Rule is not approved.

Some usually reliable fishery sources have suggested that outgoing Commerce Secretary Gutierrez will not sign the Interim Rule even if NMFS decides to approve it.  That would leave it for the incoming administration and they could not offer action until after entering office on January 20.  Thirty days after that would be February 20 and the previously approved spawning closure begins just a few days later on March 1.

Certainly there is some conjecture here, but an old Navy adage promotes most scuttlebutt as being true.  Only time will tell, but Amendment 16, with its extended grouper closure and reduced limits may not become effective until later in the year.  Once any change is made, we'll keep you posted.  You can also check the SAFMC website at www.safmc.net.

Amendment 16, which has been approved and will become effective at some point in the not-too-distant future, includes provisions to implement a closure from January 1 through the end of April, reduce the total commercial catch for gad grouper to 352,940 pounds (gutted weight), close the commercial shallow water grouper fishery after this quota has been caught and reduce the total recreational grouper bag limit from 5 to 3 grouper and in that limit reduce the allowed catch of gag grouper from 2 fish to 1 fish.  For more information, visit the SAFMC website at www.safmc.net