A possible four-month grouper closure in federal Atlantic Ocean waters returns in the latest version of snapper-grouper rules proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“We got a reprieve in December when the NMFS abandoned the closure as an interim rule,” said Islamorada charter captain Bill Kelly, “but the [proposed permanent rule] is exactly the same.”

The January-through-April closure for most types of shallow-water grouper in federal Atlantic waters is contained in Amendment 16 to the Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan administered under the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

A comment period on the draft plan ends Feb. 23.

“After all the comments are collected, staff will review them before publishing the final rule,” said Kim Iverson, spokeswoman for the South Atlantic Council. “Then a new round of public hearings will be held.”

The grouper closure, which the feds say is needed to protect spawning fish, seemed like it would take effect Jan. 1, 2009, after an emergency rule was endorsed by the South Atlantic Council.

But when various delays threatened to reduce the length of the closure, the closure was dropped for 2009.

In announcing there would be no 2009 closure, NMFS regional administrator Roy Crabtree said the permanent rule could be adopted “by late spring or early summer,” setting the stage for a closure starting in January 2010.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that won’t happen,” Kelly said. “My personal thought is even if additional protections are warranted for the shallow-water grouper, it’s doubtful that it would be as severe as a four-month closure across the board for black grouper, red grouper and gag grouper.”

State fishery biologists are taking the lead in a new stock assessment for red and black grouper, expected to be released next January.

Kelly, who will serve on the study’s advisory panel, said it makes little sense to adopt permanent rules this year when more complete species population studies will be available early in 2010.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is moving to ease rules on grouper, he said. “The dividing line [from South Atlantic waters] would be the yellow line down the middle of U.S. 1,” he said. “How can we have such drastically different stock assessments?”

A grouper closure this year would have devastated the sportfishing industry in the Keys, Kelly said.

“Look at the fire at Cheeca Lodge, which was responsible for hundreds of bluewater and backcountry fishing trips,” he said.

Draft rules under Amendment 16 are available online at the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site, Sero.NMFS.NOAA.gov.

Source: http://www.keysnet.com/fishing/story/61566.html