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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Gag Grouper

Marine Fisheries

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GAG, Mycteroperca microlepis

8-point rule

Gag grouper

Life History

Gag grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis) are widely distributed in the Western Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Adults occur from North Carolina to Brazil on hard bottom habitats at depths from 60 to 500 feet. Juvenile gag are estuarine dependent and inhabit estuaries from Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, often residing in seagrass beds and oyster reefs. Offshore of the Carolinas, gag spawn in February and their larvae are transported into estuaries. As the water temperature declines in the fall, juveniles migrate from estuaries to offshore hard bottom habitats.

Gag are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they begin life as females and a portion transition to males at older ages. Females start to sexually mature at around 24 inches total length and at about 3 years old (at this size and age, 50 percent of females are mature). At 32 inches total length and 6 years of age, all females are mature. Between ages 10 and 11 (approximately 39 inches total length) females transition to males; most gag over 45 inches total length are male.

Maximum age for gag is 26 years old. They can grow to be 58 inches total length and attain weights up to 81 pounds. This species is often found in groups around rocky ledges and other hard bottom habitats such as artificial reefs and shipwrecks on the outer continental shelf. Gag are highly predatory, preying on several finfish species, as well as crabs, shrimp, and squid.

Fisheries

Commercially, gag are harvested using conventional hook and line gear, electric and hydraulic reels, as well as spears (mostly south of Cape Hatteras). Commercial landings have fallen since a high in the 2008-2009 season. This decline followed changes in annual catch limits and trip limits and a seasonal spawning closure implemented by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Figure 1). From 2010 through 2014, the annual catch limit for gag has been met. However, in 2015, the annual catch limit was not met; 91 percent of the quota was caught. In 2016, only 74 percent of the quota was met. The 10 year average commercial landings for gag (2007 to 2016) is 179,058 pounds.

Figure 1

The recreational fishery uses many of the same gear types as the commercial fishery. The number of fish landed recreationally has declined since 2007. The 2016 landings (in numbers of fish) were approximately 71 percent below the 10 year average. As with the commercial fishery, this decline in landings followed changes to annual catch limits, bag limits and the seasonal closure implemented by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. For the past 10 years, except for 2009, the number of fish released has been more than 70 percent of the total number of fish caught. (Figure 2). The recreational fishery has not met its annual catch limit since 2010 and has rarely exceeded 50 percent of the quota. In 2015, 19 percent of the annual catch limit was reached, and 43 percent was reached in 2016. The 10 year average recreational landings for gag (2007 to 2016) is 77,851 pounds or 6,062 fish.

Figure 2

Management

Gag is currently included in the North Carolina Interjurisdictional Fishery Management Plan, which defers to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan requirements. Amendment 4 (1992) established a 20 inch total length minimum size; Amendment 9 (1999) increased the minimum size to 24 inches total length, created a two fish recreational bag limit and a March through April no sale provision. Amendment 16 (2009) established a spawning season closure for both recreational and commercial fishermen, reduced the recreational bag limit from two fish to one fish within the aggregate grouper bag limit and prohibited captains and crew on for-hire vessels from retaining recreational bag limits. Amendment 17B (2010) established the commercial annual catch limit for the South Atlantic at 352,940 pounds gutted weight with a trip limit of 1,000 pounds gutted weight and established a recreational annual catch limit of 340,060 pounds gutted weight. Regulatory Amendment 15 (2013) removed the requirement to close harvest of all shallow water groupers once the gag annual catch limit was met and reduced the commercial annual catch limit to account for projected gag discard mortality from trips that target co-occurring species during gag closures. Regulatory Amendment 14 (2014) revised the commercial trip limit of 1,000 pounds gutted weight to include a trip limit reduction to 500 pounds gutted weight when 75 percent of the quota had been caught. Regulatory Amendment 22 (2015) adjusted the annual catch limits for both the commercial and recreational fisheries based on the update to the Southeast, Data, Assessment and Review stock assessment (SEDAR 10).

Minimum size limits, daily bag limits, trip limits, a seasonal spawning closure and regulations designed to reduce release mortality have been put in place to keep harvest below the annual catch limits and ensure a sustainable fishery.

Stock Status Overview

Gag are included the snapper grouper complex that is managed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in federal waters. Thus, gag in North Carolina waters are part of a regional fishery that includes populations located along the Atlantic coastlines of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and east Florida to Key West. In 2014, the SEDAR 10 stock assessment indicated that the stock was experiencing overfishing (fishing mortality above its target level), but was not overfished (population size too small). However, the National Marine Fisheries Service removed gag from the overfishing list in December 2014. This decision was based on the fact that in 2012 (the terminal year of the assessment) the fishing mortality rate was below the threshold. Also, the projected fishing mortality rate in 2013 (based on landings for that year which were below the quota) was below the overfishing threshold. In addition, there had been a steady and consistent decline in the fishing mortality rate for the past five to six years of the assessment. Therefore, as reported by the National Marine Fisheries Service in early 2017, gag are not considered overfished nor is overfishing occurring.

Research Needs

Research priorities at the state level include developing adult and juvenile indices of abundance, especially fishery-independent indices of abundance; continuing to collect life history data, including data on age, growth, reproduction, and mortality; continuing discard sampling and methods to reduce discard mortality and expand collection of information on depth and location and age and size distribution of discarded fish; researching alternative stock-recruitment relationships to determine the most appropriate sustainability benchmarks; and researching methods for estimating historic landings in both recreational and commercial fisheries.

Current federal research needs include developing a juvenile abundance index; assessing release mortality values; conducting a population assessment; expanding age and growth studies; and determining migration patterns. Additional research recommendations are updated by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council as needed.

Links

Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council


NOAA Fisheries
(Southeast Regional Office)

Fishery Management Plans Amendments, Revisions and Supplements

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Stock Assessment Reports

NOAA Fisheries

Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR)

Contacts

For more information,
contact McLean Seward at Mclean.Seward@ncdenr.gov
or 910-796-7289
Gag grouper
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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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