The possible future of South Florida fishing rules — including the latest information on Goliath grouper populations — goes before combined panels of federal and state fishery experts convening Jan. 7-9 in Key Largo.
"This is really interesting stuff," Robert Mahood, executive director of the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, said.
Board members and staff from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the South Atlantic Council, along with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientists and managers, will consider possible ways to streamline fishing regulations specifically for South Florida waters.
"We've talked for years about trying to coordinate regulations in Florida. This is part of that," Mahood said.
"If you drive down U.S. 1 in the Keys, you might legally catch a snapper on one side of a bridge," he said. "But if you take it across the road to your car, you may be breaking the law."
The two federal councils and the FWC formed the Joint Council on South Florida Management Issues, which meets at the Hilton Key Largo.
Five council members or staff members who serve on the South Florida committee also sit on the Goliath Grouper Joint Council Steering Committee, which holds a meeting during the Key Largo trip. John Sanchez, a former Florida Keys commercial fishing executive, represents the Gulf Council on both committees.
"There's been a lot of interest, especially from the gulf side where they're seeing more [Goliath grouper], in reopening that fishery," Mahood said.
It has been nearly a quarter of a century since a ban on legally harvesting a Goliath grouper — then known as a jewfish — was enacted in 1990.
Sightings and reports of more Goliath grouper have been increasing for years. Recent fishing reports from the Keys include accounts of releasing more than a dozen Goliath grouper on one trip.
However, many biologists worry that allowing even a limited harvest of the slow-growing, territorial fish that can grow to more than 700 pounds could quickly reverse decades of gains.
"We really don't know if the [Goliath grouper] stock is rebuilt," Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries Service said at a Keys meeting last summer. "It's probably close but we don't know.... A lot of people feel if we open the bag limit, people will fish it right back down."
Luiz Barbieri, an FWC biologist, will update the Joint Council on South Florida Management Issues on the most recent Goliath grouper assessments. The grouper committee agenda includes "possible management options for moving beyond the moratorium."
The South Florida panel will look at which species might best benefit from special regional rules. Cited are yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, hogfish, mangrove snapper, shallow-water groupers, Nassau grouper, Warsaw grouper and speckled hind.
Florida fishery managers "have taken taken the lead" on the South Florida rules, Mahood said, but any decisions would have to return to the councils and state.
"Once it gets to the level of deciding, it goes to the full-blown [federal] process," Mahood said. "It's not a quick thing."