The commercial allocation of the Gulf of Mexico red grouper catch will shrink starting June 1 while the recreational sector's share will increase.

NOAA Fisheries announced the final rule under Amendment 53 on May 2, allocating 59.3 percent of the annual catch to the commercial sector (down from 76 percent) and increasing the recreational allocation from 24 percent to 40.7 percent.

But there's a twist. The day after NOAA announced the new commercial allocation reduction, it proposed a slight increase in total annual catch limit for red grouper in the Gulf from 4.26 million pounds to 4.96 million pounds (gutted weight), including a boost in the commercial catch limit from 2.53 million pounds to 2.94 million pounds.  The recreational catch limit would rise from 1.73 million pounds to 2.02 million pounds.  The agency is accepting public comment through May 18.

In its initial news release announcing the reallocation plan, NOAA wrote, "Although the most recent red grouper population assessment did not show red grouper was undergoing overfishing.....or being overfished....the assessment did find the population was below a level that could support the optimal harvest.  Additionally there is evidence the red grouper population was impacted by recent red tide events along the west Florida shelf."

But the following day's announcement of the proposed catch limit increase seemed to contradict that, citing a new interim analysis showing a slight improvement in the health of the red grouper stock since 2019.

In response, representatives of the commercial fishing industry-- the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance; Southern Offshore Fishing Association; and Cortez, FL-based A.P. Bell Fish Co.-- filed suit May 6 in federal court in Washington, D.C. to strike down Amendment 53, calling it "unlawful" and a violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Named as defendants in the suit are U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, as well as NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Gulf Shareholders Alliance says NOAA's latest proposal upping the red grouper catch limit does not fix the damage caused by the reallocation under Amendment 53, but makes it worse. Even with the proposed quota increase, the commercial sector still would receive 210,000 fewer pounds than it got prior to Amendment 53, the group wrote in a news release.

"Reallocation to the recreational sector under Amendment 53 increases dead discards and commercial fishermen are forced to fish under a reduced catch limit to cover those discards," the Alliance's statement reads.  "So commercial fishermen are penalized twice:  first by the reallocation and second, by lower overall catch limits to offset increased recreational discards.  In essence. commercial fishermen now have a smaller piece of a smaller pie as a result of Amendment 53."

"A lose-lose-lose situation," Jason DeLaCruz, owner of Wild Seafood Co. in John's Pass, FL., added.  "Our businesses are taking a hit; seafood consumers are taking a hit; and the health of the red grouper stock is taking a hit. It's such a waste."

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Sue Cocking spent more than 20 years as the outdoors writer at the Miami Herald, covering everything from commercial and recreational fishing to powerboat racing and scuba diving. She once worked as a light-tackle charter boat fishing captain in Key West and had an 18-year career in radio news broadcasting. She lives in Sebastian, Fla.

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