Gulf Gag Grouper Season Shortened

A temporary rule pushes back opening day to September 1.

Large gag grouper
Gag grouper are a prized catch in the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers use live baits and metal jigs to catch the tasty bottom-huggers. A shortened season in 2023 hopes to help rebuild the gag grouper population. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Anglers looking forward to catching and keeping gag grouper in June will have to wait a couple months — at least for offshore bottom-bouncers fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The 2023 gag grouper season in federal waters was scheduled to open June 1; now it will open on Sept. 1.

The gag grouper season is still expected to close on November 10, unless NOAA Fisheries projects the recreational Annual Catch Limit (ACL) is reached prior to that date, in which case the season might end sooner. As it stands, the gag grouper season is shortened from 162 days to a bit more than two months. Minimum size limit remains 24 inches total length. Bag limit stays at 2 per person, within the 4 grouper aggregate.

“That leaves us 70 days to fish, and we’ll fish all those days,” said Capt. Clay Shidler, of Hang’Em High Sport Fishing in Crystal River, Florida. “Thankfully, we’ll still have the red snapper season which will bring anglers out.”

NOAA Fisheries implemented the temporary rule to help reduce overfishing of gags as part of the Gulf’s Reef Fishery Management Plan. The recommendations originated from the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, based on results from a recent gag grouper stock assessment, leading the Gulf Council to ask NOAA Fisheries to implement the temporary changes.

“We want to protect those big male gag groupers,” said Shidler. “We’ve worked with state and federal researchers conducting gag grouper assessments.” He points out that gag grouper are protogynous hermaphrodites. Gags all start as females. None switch to males until growing to at least 32 to 36 inches. Most gags over 45 inches are males.

“We have 11 charter boats and all of them catch gag grouper, even the bay boats, in waters from 5 to 30 feet,” said Shidler. “October to December is the best time of the year for shallow water grouper. It’s what we’re known for in this part of Florida. We would have taken a 1-fish bag limit, or even a 24- to 36-inch slot limit, rather than the shortened season.”

Anglers who can keep just one gag grouper are still going to hit the water or book a charter, Shidler said. Shidler and his boats are seeing strong numbers of smaller, legal-size female gags in the areas they fish — but 10 to 30 feet off Florida’s Nature Coast is still federal waters.

The 2021 Gag Grouper Stock Assessment

legal size gag grouper
Gag grouper in the Gulf of Mexico must measure at least 24 inches to keep during the open season. The 2023 season was cut by about 43 percent. Courtesy Return ‘Em Right

Gulf gag grouper are overfished, according to 2021’s stock assessment. That means there are too few gags in the Gulf for the population to sustain itself, especially when compared to historic levels.

The Southeast Fisheries Science Center calculated a drastic reduction in take is necessary to ensure that gag stocks can rebuild in a span of 22 years, explained a NOAA Fisheries statement. Their calculations found catch limits in 2023 had to drop to 661,901 pounds in order to meet the timeframe for rebuilding, as specified by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

To complete the gag grouper stock assessment, data was gathered from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) Fishing Effort Survey (FES), which replaced the MRIP Coastal Household Telephone Survey (CHTS). MRIP-FES uses mail-based surveys to estimate effort, and uses angler license and registration information to identify and contact anglers. 

Crunching the Gag Grouper Numbers

Here are the current catch limits for Gulf gag grouper, estimated using MRIP-CHTS. All numbers are in pounds gutted weight.

  • Stock Annual Catch Limit: 3,120,000
  • Commercial Annual Catch Limit: 1,217,000
  • Recreational Annual Catch Limit: 1,903,000
  • Commercial Annual Catch Target/Quota: 939,000
  • Recreational Annual Catch Target: 1,708,000

Below are the new catch limits for Gulf gag grouper, calculated using MRIP-FES estimates. MRIP-FES estimates of effort and catch are substantially higher than MRIP-CHTS estimates.

  • Stock Annual Catch Limit: 661,901
  • Commercial Annual Catch Limit: 258,000
  • Recreational Annual Catch Limit: 403,759
  • Commercial Annual Catch Target/Quota: 199,000
  • Recreational Annual Catch Target: 362,374

Reef Fish Amendment 56 Update

The temporary gag grouper rule is effective for 180 days until October 30, but NOAA Fisheries is expected to extend the rule for up to 186 days. That’s long enough for Reef Fish Amendment 56, the Gulf Council’s complete plan to rebuild gag grouper, to go into effect by the mandated date of January 26, 2024. On June 8, the Gulf Council took final action on Reef Fish Amendment 56. The Council:

  • Revised the criteria used to determine whether gag is overfished and/or experiencing overfishing, based on results of the most recent stock assessment (SEDAR 72), by setting the maximum sustainable yield proxy at the fishing mortality associated with 40% spawning potential ratio.
  • Revised the sector allocation to account for the change in recreational harvest monitoring data, resulting in a 65% recreational and 35% commercial split, using average landings from 1986-2005 as estimated by Florida’s State Reef Fish Survey for private vessels, MRIP for shore mode and for-hire vessels, and the Southeast Region Headboat Survey for headboats.
  • Established a rebuilding timeline of 18 years and set corresponding annual catch limits at 75% of the fishing mortality associated with a 40% spawning potential ratio.
  • Set the recreational annual catch target 20% below the recreational annual catch limit; and, set the commercial annual catch target 5% below the commercial annual catch limit and set the commercial quota equal to the annual catch target.
  • Opened the gag recreational fishing season on September 1 and close it when the recreational ACT is projected to be met; this is expected to result in a season duration of about two months.

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