Just after the ball hits bottom in Times Square on New Year's Eve, recreational fishermen across the Southeast Atlantic will add shallow-water grouper to the growing list of offshore bottom species that are off limits.

The annual closure for the spawning season goes into effective at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, with the possession of red grouper, gag grouper, black grouper, scamp grouper and several others prohibited until 12:01 a.m. on May 1.

Other grouper species covered under the closure are misty, tiger, yellowedge, yellowfin and yellowmouth groupers, along with blueline tilefish, sand tilefish, coney, graysby, red hind and rock hind.

Recreational grouper fishermen from Key West to Cape Hatteras made it through the eight-month grouper season without reaching their allocation of 648,663 pounds (gutted weight) for all shallow-water grouper or 340,060 pounds (gutted weight) for gag grouper.

However, commercial fishermen reached their allocation. On Dec. 13, several commercial grouper fishermen in the Carolinas received a copy of a letter from Tom Swatzel of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council stating that National Marine Fisheries biologists said the commercial gag grouper quota of 352,940 pounds was expected to be reached by today (Dec. 21) and the provisions in Amendment 17B required closing all commercial shallow water grouper fishing at that time to prevent exceeding the quota.

This commercial closure, which has yet to be formally announced, would be 10 days early and during the best fishing of the year. The shallow-water grouper complex also includes scamp and red grouper, whose quotas have not been met, but Swatzel's letter said the early closure to protect gag grouper required closing the season for all shallow-water grouper.

As of this afternoon (Dec. 21), the fisheries bulletin announcing the early closure had not been posted on the SAFMC website. The season will not close until this fisheries bulletin is posted or Jan. 1, whichever comes first.

Capt. Keith Logan, one of numerous fishermen who will be adversely affected by the early commercial closure, said these closures are becoming burdensome.

"We want to work, but they keep closing seasons and we can't," Logan said.

Logan also is a charter captain, and said he switched to emphasizing the commercial side of his business after closures for black sea bass, vermilion snapper and red snapper curtailed his charter business in mid October. He said he was anticipating the standard shallow-water grouper closure beginning on Jan. 1, but was counting on the good commercial grouper fishing through the end of December to help make ends meet through the winter.

Current recreational bottom closures in the South Atlantic Region (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Atlantic Coast of Florida) include red snapper (closed indefinitely), black sea bass (closed through May 31) and vermilion snapper (closed through March 31).

Snowy grouper are limited to one fish per vessel per trip with no harvest in water of 240 feet or deeper.

Golden tilefish, which has been closed since Oct. 6, will reopen to a single fish per person per day in water less than 240 feet deep, but remain closed in depths greater than 240 feet.

Also, in waters greater than 240 feet deep there is a prohibition on the harvest and retention of snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, yellowedge grouper, misty grouper, queen snapper and silk snapper.

Seasons for goliath grouper, Nassau grouper, speckled hind and Warsaw grouper are closed in all federal waters.

For more information on limits and closures, visit the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Web page.