They engulf prey whole by opening their large mouths, dilating their gill covers, rapidly drawing in a current of water, and inhaling the food. Large sharks and carnivorous marine mammals prey on adult red grouper.
Red grouper are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts through the Gulf of Mexico and south to Brazil. Annual catch limits are used for red grouper in the commercial and recreational fisheries.
These fisheries are closed when their annual catch limit is projected to be met. Both the commercial and recreational fisheries have size limits to reduce harvest of immature red grouper.
The commercial and recreational fishing seasons are closed from January through April to protect red grouper during their peak spawning period. To reduce by catch, there are restrictions on the type of gear fishermen may use and where they can fish.
Year-round and/or seasonal area closures for commercial and recreational sectors to protect spawning groupers. The majority of media and political attention is focused on red snapper, but there are several other reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico that are of commercial and recreational importance.
Thanks to successful management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, red snapper populations are rebounding and their range is expanding. On a regional level, any time the commercial sector does not land its quota, political pressures begin to ramp up from radical recreational fishing lobbying groups who push for reallocating commercial fishing quota and gifting it to recreational fishermen.
Why would these radical groups push for more lax management and reallocation when even recreational fishermen in the Gulf could only catch 35% of their quota in 2017? Solving the problem of a declining of red grouper population is not going to be an easy task, but I have confidence that our collaboration between industry, scientists, and managers, together with the best-available science mandated by Magnuson-Stevens, can successfully recover the red grouper fishery.
Paul Lough ridge is a commercial fisherman and owner of four boats out of Crystal River, Florida. He’s been fishing for over 25 years, starting with grouper and snapper, then expanding into stone crab.
“Adult gag grouper live in nearshore waters from coastal North Carolina south to Brazil and as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. Smaller gag are a lot of lighter in coloring, and have numerous dark brown, or charcoal, kiss-like marks along their sides.
“Adult gag grouper, live over on top of low- and high-profile hard bottom such as reefs or shipwrecks in waters between 60-250 feet deep,” said McLean Seward, fisheries biologist with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. “Young gag grouper will live in oyster reefs, estuaries and seagrass beds from Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The coloration of red grouper helps to distinguish this species from gag with its head and body being dark reddish brown, shading pink or reddish or even pale pink along the lower part of its body,” Nash said. “In North Carolina, gag will typically spawn in February and have clear larvae, which then make their way into estuaries.
As water temperatures start to go down in the fall, juvenile gag will migrate from estuaries to offshore hard bottom habitat and larger members of their species,” said Seward. Seward noted that all grouper are considered protogynous intersex, “that is they start their lives as females, and a part of the population will morph, or make the change, to males as they get older.
Females start to reach sexual maturity when they are about 24 inches in total length and about 3 years old. They are voracious predators, and will feed on whatever they can capture including scad, snapper, grunt, sardines, crabs, porgies, shrimp and squid, said Seward.
Red grouper sitting on sand habitat 45 degrees to camera full body view mouth open. In addition to their color, red grouper can be distinguished from gag by the sloped, straight line of their spiny dorsal fin.
“The red grouper is also a protogynous intersex and females are sexually mature by the time they reach 4 years old,” Seward said. Females typically will let go an average of 1.5 million pelagic eggs that stay at the surface for between 30-40 days before finally settling down to the bottom.
“ Red grouper may live to be as old as 25 years of age, with older specimens reaching a size of 32.5 inches and up to 25 pounds. They will feed on lobster, shrimp, octopus, crabs and fish that are found close to their preferred reef habitat,” Seward said.
Bottom fishing is the best way to catch gag grouper, using live bait, including squid and cigar minnows. Use a depth finder to find deep-water rock ledges, artificial reefs and shipwrecks, a gag grouper ’s favorite hiding place.
Recreational and commercial fishermen are required to use hooking tools when fishing for the snapper grouper species. “This prohibition does not apply to fish harvested, landed and sold before the annual catch limit is reached and held in cold storage by a dealer,” said North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Executive Assistant to Councils Steve Poland, who is also a representative with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Charter and head boat and commercial snapper grouper vessels must have National Marine Fisheries Service-approved sea turtle release gear and adhere to small tooth saw fish release protocol, Poland added. While populations of gag grouper have remained healthy, a 10-year effort to rebuild the red grouper stock has failed, leading to new, stricter rules and regulations taking effect this year.
Therefore, on Sept. 27, 2017, NFS sent a letter to the council stating that the South Atlantic red grouper stock was not making adequate progress toward rebuilding. So, NFS took steps in 2018 to immediately end overfishing of red grouper by reducing the total commercial and recreational annual catch limits, based on the acceptable biological catch recommendation from the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee.
“For red grouper, this final rule extends the closure season formerly from January to April, to January through May of each year for the next ten years for the commercial and recreational portions off North and South Carolina, and establishes a commercial trip limit,” said Poland. This final rule establishes a commercial trip limit for red grouper harvested in the South Atlantic EEA of 200 pounds, gutted weight.
The trip limit is expected to help rebuild the red grouper stock by discouraging directed commercial fishing for the species, although it is not likely to substantially reduce the current level of commercial harvest of red grouper, according to the National Register. “The council selected a commercial trip limit that in combination with extending the spawning season cloture for red grouper off North Carolina and South Carolina would help keep down harvest numbers to help rebuild the stock,” Poland said.
That is the amount of an intended cut in the commercial annual catch limit requested by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council at their meeting last October. Meanwhile, the Council will initiate a framework amendment to reduce the catch limits of both commercial and recreational fishermen beyond the expiration of the 180-day period covered by the interim or emergency rule.
Members of the public will be asked to comment on the proposed rule after it is published in the Federal Register, which should happen in the coming weeks.