Drastic Measures Proposed to Help Save Plummeting Fish Populations

The author with a 7-pound hogfish speared 35 miles off of Daytona Beach.EXPAND
The author with a 7-pound hogfish speared 35 miles off of Daytona Beach.
Randy Docks

Some of the most amazing species on Earth are here under the water. 

Take, for example, hogfish, which can convert from female to male when they are about 3 years old. 

According to Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biological scientist Jeff Renchen, all hogfish begin their lives as females. As spawning season approaches, the alpha female morphs into a male. Each male then maintains a harem of 7 to 12 females during the spawn.

Unimpeded in nature, this would result in healthy fish populations. In reality, the critters are drastically overfished. That's why the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) and the FWC have been holding community meetings to discuss proposals related to hogfish, mutton snapper, king mackerel, and even reporting requirements for commercial fishermen. Monday night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dania Beach, a handful of fishermen and fishery reps met to discuss potential rule changes. Other meetings were held elsewhere in the state this week. 

Let' s start with the hogfish. 

Hogfish in Florida and the Florida Keys are genetically different than hogfish in Georgia and the Carolinas. This segregation will result in different rules for each area. The average hogfish landed in Florida is a mere 1.85 pounds, where the average hogfish up north is 10.6 pounds. Nearly all hogfish are taken by spearfishermen.  (Side note: There is currently a move to ban scuba divers from spearfishing.) 

In healthy ecosystems, female-to-male conversion and spawning start when the fish are approximately 15 inches. This means that a legal 12-inch hogfish is unlikely to have had an opportunity to replace itself in the ecosystem by reproducing at all, let alone enough to replenish or grow the stock. In areas of high fishing pressure, hogfish can start converting at as small as 11 or 12 inches. This explains the presence of 11- and 12-inch male hogfish frequently seen in the Keys and in South Florida.

Male hogfish, also called super males, are easily identifiable by their elongated snouts and the dark coloring along their foreheads. This coloring makes them easier to spot by spearfishermen while also making them appear a bit larger than they really are. As a result, males are frequently targeted by spearfishermen — even more so than females because the lack of super male coloring and subtler features allows the females’ camouflage to do its job. Once spotted, however, hogfish are a relatively easy target. Hogfish are also caught on hook and line using shrimp as bait.

Once a super male is taken out of the ecosystem, another female must make the conversion to male, a process that can take several months. Of course, during this time, no spawning is occurring for the harem. By the time the female becomes a super male; she is roughly of legal size limit and again can be targeted by spearfishermen. This vicious cycle likely results in numerous harems going unspawned for seasons at a time, particularly in high pressure areas like South Florida and the Keys.

Proposals to rebuild the hogfish fishery include reducing the commercial catch by as much as 75 percent and reducing recreational catch by 85 percent. Of course, this would require a drastic change in the current fishery rules, which in Florida waters allow fishermen to take as many as five hogfish per day per person, with a minimum size of 12 inches. The goal is to maintain stock sufficient for fishing as well as rebuilding the stock over a  ten-year period. Proposals rightfully include significantly lowering bag limits and increasing size limits. Size limit proposals range from a mere 14 inches all the way up to a minimum of 20 inches. There are also proposals for trip limits and bag limits as low as one and as many as three hogfish per person per day.

As a long-time vocal proponent of protecting the hogfish, this author has opined on the subject for quite some time and to the frequent dismay of dive buddies. Regardless of the current law, it would seem that responsible spearfishermen would take immediate action to protect the fishery. If we now know that hogfish don’t generally start to spawn before they are 15 inches, why on earth would we ever shoot a hogfish shorter than 15 inches? It would also make sense to limit our shooting of super males, particularly during the November to April spawn. Consider the gauntlet hereby thrown.

Myra Brouwer
Myra Brouwer
photo by Branon Edwards

Now, let's talk about mutton snapper.

Mutton snapper is considered a single stock throughout the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The bulk of mutton snapper is taken by hook and line and longline in the Gulf, with only a small fraction taken by spearfishermen. 

Updated stock assessment data from 2013 to 2015 shows that mutton snapper is not currently overfished, but there has been a decrease in adult populations since 2008. So, in an effort to preserve the fishery, the council is proposing to lower the total catch from its current rate of 926,600 pounds to 567,440 pounds.  Official documents say, “The current [mutton snapper] commercial annual catch limit (ACL) is 157,743 pounds and the recreational ACL is 768,857 pounds.” This means the commercial allocation is 17.02 percent and the recreational allocation is 82.98 percent. While we’ve all seen photos of commercial docks littered with freshly caught mutton snapper, the reality is that recreational fishermen take far more mutton snapper.

Some of the proposals being considered include creating a closed season that coincides with mutton snapper’s spawning season, which runs April to August with the highest spawn aggregations occurring in May and June. Other proposals include decreasing bag limits either year-round or specifically during spawning season. Proposed new bag limits range from two per person to five per person per day, or two to 12 per vessel per day. Currently, fishermen can take as many as ten per person per day as part of their aggregate snapper limit.

Myra Brouwer, fishery scientist for SAFMC, noted that most fishermen are helpful, but that for rogue ones, there simply aren’t enough agents to prevent poaching.

Alongside Brouwer, Martha Bademan, section leader for the Division of Marine Fisheries Management, also presented the state version of the topics, but commented, “We’re mostly here to listen,” and listen they did.

During the official taking of public statements, recreational fisherman Rob Hammer said of the fishery in and around the Dry Tortugas National Park that fishermen in his area “have given up 200 square miles of fishery.” He believed that everyone would need to give up something in order to preserve fish stocks, but he also set forth a proposal to change current rules to allow those fishing in the Tortugas to keep a two-day limit when staying out multiple days, particularly if they had proof of that, such as a receipt for camping at Fort Jefferson. Presently, fishermen can only land with a single day’s limit regardless of how many days they’ve been out.

David Moss, a South Florida native, said he wanted to preserve the resource for his daughter. “Why wait until there is a problem to find a solution?” Moss supports lowering bag limits and increasing minimum size requirements for both mutton snapper and hogfish. He said it was rare to see fish of keeper size, particularly in proximity to high fishing pressure areas like Miami. He felt making sure there was a successful spawning season was a good idea as well.

Other attendees included well-known industry folks like Carl Liederman of Captain Harry’s Fishing Supply and charter fishermen like Captain Bouncer of Bouncer’s Dusky 33 in Miami Beach, who has been fishing the area for 50 years. He said, “First of all, it’s good that the SAFMC and FWC came together with the fishermen this afternoon. It’s always educational and good to learn about how things are being done and that the concerns of the fishermen are being considered.” Bouncer said he was in favor of reducing the bag limit on mutton snapper and even supported a closure during April to June for the spawn. He was also in favor of another SAFMC proposal that would require charter boat captains to report regularly so that real data could continue to be collected. Brouwer mentioned that an app developed in Rhode Island could make reporting electronically a lot easier as well.

The SAFMC will take public comments through February 10 for hogfish and mutton snapper. Comments can be sent via email to Mike.Collins@SAFMC.net with the subject “Am 41 Scoping” for mutton snapper and subject “Am 37 Scoping” for hogfish. Written comments can also be mailed to Gregg Waugh, Executive Director, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, 4055 Faber Place Drive, Suite 201, North Charleston, SC 29405. Draft amendments can be downloaded at the Council’s website at http://SAFMC.net.

Following these community meetings, SAFMC will review the public input, select preferred alternatives and take final action through March. The Gulf Council will do likewise into April. From there, there will be public hearings, likely in August with some re-tweaking before rules are submitted for final approval and implementation. FWC will follow a similar path and typically constructs its rules to coincide and support the federal rules. New rules will likely take effect in 2017.

Florida fishermen will also be pleased to know that there are new assessments forthcoming for red snapper and for goliath grouper.

Branon Edwards is a PADI-certified divemaster who has been scuba diving in South Florida for more than three decades. He is a real estate broker and freelance writer who lives on a sailboat in Fort Lauderdale.

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