Gulf marine reserves given new life

04/15/04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.--Two experimental marine reserves in the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico, begun in June 2000 to study their potential for protecting spawning populations of grouper and other bottom-dwelling fish, will be extended to June 2010, federal fishery managers have announced.

Both areas were originally scheduled to sunset after four years, or on June 16. In March, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) approved the six-year extension after reviewing testimony from fishermen and scientists who argued in favor of the extensions last year.

"The backing from fishermen on the reserves is the real coup. Without their participation, we might still be searching for spawning sites in the Gulf of Mexico," said Florida State University marine biologist Felicia Coleman.

Throughout the 1990s, Coleman and her FSU colleague and husband Chris Koenig, also a marine biologist, led research into grouper biology that led to the creation of the two marine reserves. They documented the existence of a deepwater (180- to 300-feet) area in the Northeastern Gulf that is used each winter and early spring by gag grouper for spawning. For recreational anglers throughout the Gulf, the gag grouper is the most important grouper species.

The two reserves, named the Madison/Swanson and Steamboat Lumps, are roughly 55 to 75 miles south-southeast of Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle, or roughly 95 miles west of Tarpon Springs. Madison/Swanson covers about 115 square nautical miles while Steamboat Lumps is somewhat smaller at 104 square nautical miles.

Last year, members of The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council - the federal ruling authority in the Gulf charged with recommending policy to NMFS - analyzed findings produced by Coleman, Koenig and other marine scientists that showed the reserves were working as designed. Larger fish with greater egg-producing potential were found within the protected sites than outside them, and an increase in the number of male groupers was noted, Coleman said. The Council also heard from a number of commercial anglers who supported continuing the reserves.

"We're on the cusp of determining whether the obvious protection afforded by the reserves spills over into fisheries production outside of the reserve boundaries. The extra time provided through the extension in making that determination is critical," Koenig said.

Since the reserves' creation four years ago, all bottom fishing has been banned in those areas, although trolling for such migratory species as marlin, sailfish, wahoo and tuna has been permitted. The United States Coast Guard is the chief agency responsible for enforcing the bottom-fishing ban plus new regulations governing trolling through the areas that soon may be implemented.

In approving the extension, federal managers also called for a seasonal restriction on trolling in the reserves, making this type of fishing legal only from May to October. The move also would ban all types of fishing in the reserves from November through April. These new proposals for regulating fishing on so-called "highly migratory species" fall under the purview of another federal fisheries division, which is expected to rule on the measures later this year.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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