Ban on grouper fishing

Ban on grouper fishing reversed 2-month prohibition on red species only – A judge on Monday overturned a ban on recreational grouper fishing , saying federal officials went overboard when they outlawed all grouper fishing to protect one species.

U.S. District Judge John E. Steele ruled that a two-month grouper fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico that starts today is valid for red grouper.

But he said the U.S. Department of Commerce cannot ban fishing for 16 other grouper species, such as gag and black grouper, simply because of concerns red grouper are being overfished.

The judge also threw out a reduction in the number of grouper each angler can catch. Officials planned to cut the bag limit from five fish to three. Steele wrote that the reduction, like the ban on all grouper fishing, is an “abuse of discretion.”

Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association for Florida, called it “a great ruling.”

“It’s a big win for the state of Florida and for saltwater anglers,” Forsgren said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service went way beyond their authority in closing down the entire Gulf of Mexico for all grouper in their attempt to protect red grouper.”

The decision came in a pair of lawsuits the Coastal Conservation Association and The Fishing Rights Alliance filed in federal court in Fort Myers.

The commerce department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted an interim rule July 25 banning grouper fishing for November and December.

The groups sued in an effort to stop the ban, saying the agencies failed to prove red grouper were overfished, the ban violated federal law and was not based on the best scientific evidence, and the agencies failed to conduct an adequate environmental assessment of the impact of the rule.

In a 26-page opinion and order, Steele sided with the agencies on three counts but found the rule violated federal law by being overly broad.

The law, Steele wrote, doesn’t allow U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to ban fishing for the other grouper species “unless there has been a finding that the other grouper species are overfished.”

“Such findings are lacking in this case,” Steele wrote, adding that federal officials “acted arbitrarily, capriciously, in an abuse of discretion and in violation” of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Attorney Craig L. Berman of St. Petersburg represents The Fishing Rights Alliance.

“We’re overjoyed that the court has recognized the government’s abuse of its power,” Berman said. “It’s a clear defeat for the government.”

Berman said many members of The Fishing Rights Alliance are recreational charter boat captains “who would essentially have gone out of business” if the ban had taken effect.

Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he was pleased Steele ruled in the agencies’ favor on three of four counts.

Crabtree said he and other officials didn’t believe the rule violated the law when it was adopted.

“We believed the rule complied with the law,” Crabtree said. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t.”

Crabtree said no decision had been made Monday on what, if any, legal action the government may take now.

“I think right now, for the next two months there is a ban on red grouper,” Crabtree said, adding that fisherman “can keep the other species of grouper, but they can’t keep red grouper.”

The ruling won’t affect grouper sold in area restaurants and markets because a ban on commercial grouper fishing that took effect Oct. 10 has resulted in the sale of imported grouper.

“You can’t get domestic grouper,” said Richard Zander, manager of the University Grill in south Fort Myers. “It’s all imported. It comes either from Mexico or Chile.”

Word of Steele’s order spread quickly among area anglers.

“We would have liked to have seen the judge throw out the entire interim rule,” said Kevin Shimp, an avid fisherman and a past president of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Fort Myers chapter.

“The rule is based on 2004 data we believe was flawed,” Shimp said. “We’ll take this small victory and put it in the positive column.”
Capt. Ralph Allen, owner of King Fisher Fleet recreational fishing charters in Punta Gorda, was also pleased.

“It will make it easier for me to do business,” Allen said. “The ability to catch gag grouper, which is pretty much what we catch this time of year anyway, will be valuable to my business.”

Allen added the ban would have been particularly harsh on people fishing off the coast of Texas.

“They were shutting down all grouper fishing in Texas, where a red grouper is a rare catch,” Allen said. “They were getting shut down for a fish they don’t even catch
By Mike Hoyem
mhoyem@news-press.com
news-press.com

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