Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic; Reef Fish Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico; Red Grouper Management Measures, 52036-52038 [2019-21005]

Download as PDF 52036 Federal Register / Vol. 84, No. 190 / Tuesday, October 1, 2019 / Rules and Regulations DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 50 CFR Part 622 [Docket No. 190923–0034] RIN 0648–BI95 Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic; Reef Fish Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico; Red Grouper Management Measures National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce. ACTION: Final rule. jbell on DSK3GLQ082PROD with RULES AGENCY: SUMMARY: NMFS issues regulations to implement management measures described in a framework action to the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf), as prepared by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council). This final rule reduces the red grouper commercial and recreational annual catch limits (ACLs) and annual catch targets (ACTs). The purpose of this rule is to continue the Gulf red grouper commercial and recreational ACL and ACT reductions implemented through emergency rulemaking in 2019 to protect the red grouper stock. DATES: This final rule is effective October 31, 2019. ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of the framework action, which includes an environmental assessment, a regulatory impact review, and a Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) analysis may be obtained from the Southeast Regional Office website at https:// www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/ framework-action-modification-gulfmexico-red-grouper-annual-catchlimits-and-annual-catch. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Peter Hood, NMFS Southeast Regional Office, telephone: 727–824–5305, email: peter.hood@noaa.gov. SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: NMFS and the Council manage the Gulf reef fish fishery under the FMP. The FMP, which includes red grouper, was prepared by the Council and is implemented by NMFS through regulations at 50 CFR part 622 under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) (16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.). On July 19, 2019, NMFS published a proposed rule for the framework action VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:58 Sep 30, 2019 Jkt 250001 and requested public comment (84 FR 34845). The proposed rule and the framework action outline the rationale for the actions contained in this final rule. A summary of the management measures described in the framework action and implemented by this final rule is described below. Unless otherwise noted, all weights described in this rule are in gutted weight. Background For 2018, the red grouper commercial ACL was 8,190,000 lb (3,714,922 kg) and the commercial ACT (commercial quota) was 7,780,000 lb (3,528,949 kg); while the red grouper recreational ACL was 2,580,000 lb (1,170,268 kg) and the recreational ACT was 2,370,000 lb (1,075,014 kg). At the October 2018 meeting, the Council received a recommendation from its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) to reduce the red grouper commercial and recreational ACLs and ACTs, effective for the 2019 fishing year. Since 2014, combined commercial and recreational Gulf red grouper landings have trended downwards from over 7.26 million lb (3.29 million kg) in 2014 to approximately 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg) in 2017. The most recent red grouper stock assessment (Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) 61), was not scheduled for completion until later in 2019. Therefore, the NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) conducted an interim red grouper stock analysis to assist the SSC in developing harvest advice for the 2019 fishing year. This analysis suggested that the stock may be declining and supported recommending that the Council reduce the 2019 Gulf red grouper total ACL to 4.60 million lb (2.09 million kg). In addition to the SSC’s advice based on the interim analysis, the Council heard public testimony at the October 2018 meeting primarily from commercial fishermen. These fishermen expressed concern about the status of the red grouper stock, noting that red grouper are harder to catch than in previous years and that there appears to be a scarcity of legal-size and larger fish throughout the species’ range on the west Florida shelf. The Council also discussed the severe red tide conditions that occurred off the Florida west coast in the summer and fall of 2018, which may have adversely affected the red grouper stock. Based on these recommendations, the Council requested that NMFS implement an emergency or interim rule to reduce the Gulf red grouper stock ACL for the 2019 PO 00000 Frm 00100 Fmt 4700 Sfmt 4700 fishing year to 4.60 million lb (2.09 million kg), or equal to the 2017 total red grouper landings level, whichever is less. The Council also began work on this red grouper framework action to reduce the red grouper catch limits beyond 2019. The 2017 combined red grouper commercial and recreational landings (approximately 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg)) were less than the SSC recommended combined ACL of 4.60 million lb (2.09 million kg). Therefore, NMFS implemented an emergency rule (84 FR 22389, May 17, 2019) to reduce the red grouper commercial and recreational ACLs and ACTs consistent with a stock ACL of 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg). The emergency rule is effective through November 13, 2019, and may be extended for a maximum of an additional 186 days. Management Measures Contained in This Final Rule This final rule continues the red grouper ACLs and ACTs implemented by the emergency rule for the 2019 fishing year. Based on the framework action, the stock ACL is 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg), which is equal to the 2017 combined red grouper commercial and recreational landings. Applying the commercial allocation of 76 percent results in a commercial ACL of 3.16 million lb (1.43 million kg). The commercial ACT is set at 95 percent of the commercial ACL, or 3.00 million lb (1.36 million kg). For the recreational sector, 24 percent of the 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg) total stock ACL results in a recreational ACL of 1.00 million lb (0.45 million kg). The recreational ACT is set at 92 percent of the recreational ACL, or 0.92 million lb (0.42 million kg). The ACLs and ACTs implemented through the emergency action and continued through the promulgation of this rule are expected to benefit the stock. As described in the framework action, indicators suggest the stock may be in decline and that harvest levels need to be lowered. The stock has been assessed through SEDAR 61 and the Council’s SSC is expected to make a new catch level recommendation in September 2019. The Council expects the reductions in ACLs and ACTs implemented by this final rule to lessen the impact of any possible future changes in the ACLs and ACTs in response to the information and catch level recommendation derived from SEDAR 61. Comments and Responses NMFS received 15 comments on the proposed rule for the framework action. E:\FR\FM\01OCR1.SGM 01OCR1 jbell on DSK3GLQ082PROD with RULES Federal Register / Vol. 84, No. 190 / Tuesday, October 1, 2019 / Rules and Regulations The majority of the comments supported the proposed rule and the framework action. Some comments supporting the action suggested that additional management measures are necessary to protect the stock, such as prohibiting commercial and recreational fishing during the spawning season, reducing the recreational bag limit and season length, and increasing the commercial size limit. Comments specific to the framework action and the proposed rule are grouped as appropriate and summarized below, each followed by NMFS’ respective response. Comment 1: Because of the uncertainty in recreational landings estimates, additional measures such as a lower bag limit and longer seasonal closure should be implemented for the recreational sector to protect the stock. Response: NMFS acknowledges that uncertainty exists in estimating recreational landings. However, NMFS does not agree that additional recreational management measures are needed at this time to protect the red grouper stock. The catch levels established through this final rule are equal to 2017 harvest levels. In addition, preliminary data show that 867,118 lb (393,318 kg), gutted weight, were landed in 2018. This is below the 1.00 million lb (0.45 million kg) ACL and 0.92 million lb (0.42 million kg) ACT implemented through this final rule. Thus, NMFS expects the 2019 recreational season to remain open all year under the current 2-fish red grouper recreational bag limit. However, should landings reach or be projected to reach the recreational ACL, NMFS is required to close the recreational sector for the remainder of the fishing year. NMFS estimates Gulf red grouper and other reef fish recreational landings from information collected through the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), Southeast Headboat Survey (SHS), Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries creel survey, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department creel survey. Before these data are used to monitor landings, NMFS checks for errors and generates any necessary weight estimates. With respect to private angler landings, NMFS has improved MRIP to reduce bias identified by the National Academies of Sciences by modifying both the angler intercept survey, which collects information at the dock, and the household survey, which collects information by contacting anglers at home. With respect to the for-hire component, NMFS is working to implement an electronic data reporting system that will require all federally VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:58 Sep 30, 2019 Jkt 250001 permitted headboats and charter vessels to report landings after every trip. Currently, headboats report weekly and MRIP collects information from charter vessels randomly through a survey that is used to produce bi-monthly catch estimates. Thus, NMFS expects the accuracy of recreational landings estimate to continue to improve. Comment 2: Both the commercial and recreational sectors should be closed to red grouper fishing during the spawning season. Response: For this framework action, the Council only considered reducing the red grouper ACLs and ACTs. However, current regulations do protect the stock during some of the spawning season. Based on information from the SEDAR 42 red grouper stock assessment, the majority of spawning occurs between March and June and in waters deeper than 20 fathoms. For the recreational sector, there is a February 1 through March 31 shallow-water grouper closed season seaward of a line approximating the 20 fathom contour in the eastern Gulf. Although this closure was implemented to protect gag spawning aggregations, the closed season protects other grouper species that spawn offshore during those months, including red grouper. In addition, there are areas closed to reef fish fishing in the Gulf that are in effect year-round (e.g., Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps) or seasonally (e.g., The Edges; closed from January through April). For the commercial sector, the individual fishing quota (IFQ) program does allow red grouper fishing yearround, but the area closures referred to previously apply. In addition, from June through August, bottom longline gear is not allowed shoreward of a line approximating the 50 fathom contour. Because the majority of landed red grouper are caught with bottom longline gear in waters shallower than 50 fathoms, this seasonal prohibition affords some protection to the spawning stock. NMFS expects a new stock assessment (SEDAR 61) for red grouper to be complete in the fall of 2019. Based on the assessment results, the Council may take further action to protect the red grouper stock, which could include revisions to seasonal closures. Comment 3: To increase protection to the red grouper stock, the commercial minimum size limit should be increased from 18 inches (45.7 cm) to 20 inches (50.8 cm) total length (TL), consistent with the current recreational minimum size limit. PO 00000 Frm 00101 Fmt 4700 Sfmt 4700 52037 Response: NMFS disagrees. The commercial minimum size limit was reduced from 20 inches (50.8 cm) TL through the final rule implementing Amendment 30B to the FMP in 2009 (74 FR 17603; April 16, 2009). The Council and NMFS made this change to reduce discard mortality in the commercial fishing sector. Size limit analyses showed that reducing the size limit, especially in the commercial longline component of the fishery, was expected to decrease the number of discarded fish and increase the yield-per-recruit, which benefits the stock. Comment 4: Reducing the red grouper commercial quota has driven-up lease prices for allocation and harmed small IFQ fishing operations. Response: NMFS recognizes that the price of allocation has likely increased as a result of the decrease in the commercial quota implemented through the emergency rule, and that allocation prices will likely continue to be higher as a result of this final rule. However, as explained previously, the purpose of this framework action is to protect the red grouper stock, which has shown signs of decline. Further, as explained in the framework action, NMFS expects the impact to those fishermen who lease allocation to be lessened by a foreseeable increase in the ex-vessel prices for red grouper. Classification Pursuant to section 304(b)(1)(A) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the NMFS Assistant Administrator has determined that this final rule is consistent with the FMP, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and other applicable laws, subject to further consideration after public comment. This rule has been determined to be not significant for purposes of Executive Order 12866. This rule is not an E.O. 13771 regulatory action because this rule is not significant under E.O. 12866. The Magnuson-Stevens Act provides the statutory basis for this rule. No duplicative, overlapping, or conflicting Federal rules have been identified. In addition, no new reporting, recordkeeping, or other compliance requirements are introduced by this final rule. NMFS published the proposed rule for the framework action and prepared an Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis (IRFA) to accompany the proposed action. The IRFA concluded that the action would have a significant adverse impact on the average annual 330 small commercial fishing businesses and their combined 376 federally permitted fishing vessels that harvest red grouper from the Gulf. E:\FR\FM\01OCR1.SGM 01OCR1 52038 Federal Register / Vol. 84, No. 190 / Tuesday, October 1, 2019 / Rules and Regulations A final regulatory flexibility analysis (FRFA) parallels the IRFA and must also include a summary of significant issues raised by public comments in response to the IRFA, any changes in the action in response to those comments or new information, a description of the steps the agency took to minimize the adverse economic impact on small entities, and why it selected the alternative adopted. The Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the Small Business Administration did not file any comments on the proposed rule. No public comments were received on the IRFA or the economic impacts of the rule more generally. NMFS has not received any new information that would affect its previous determination. As a result, the estimates and conclusions of the IRFA have not changed, and the IRFA is incorporated by reference. An emergency rule reduced the red grouper commercial quota for 2019 to 3.00 million lb (1.36 million kg). This final rule will maintain that reduction of the red grouper quota for 2020 and beyond, unless modified by the Council. The Council considered two other alternatives to the commercial quota revision: Either no change or a reduction to 3.32 million lb (1.51 million kg). The no-action alternative has no short-term impacts on small businesses, but was not selected by the Council because it allows for declining status of the stock. The second nonselected alternative has smaller shortterm costs than the selected alternative, but it may not provide for sufficient protection of the stock. Section 212 of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 states that, for each rule or group of related rules for which an agency is required to prepare a FRFA, the agency shall publish one or more guides to assist small entities in complying with the rule, and shall designate such publications as small entity compliance guides. As part of the rulemaking process, NMFS prepared a fishery bulletin, which also serves as a small entity compliance guide. The fishery bulletin will be sent to all interested parties. jbell on DSK3GLQ082PROD with RULES List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 622 Commercial, Fisheries, Fishing, Gulf, Recreational, Red grouper. Dated: September 24, 2019. Samuel D. Rauch III, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine Fisheries Service. For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR part 622 is amended as follows: VerDate Sep<11>2014 16:58 Sep 30, 2019 Jkt 250001 PART 622—FISHERIES OF THE CARIBBEAN, GULF OF MEXICO, AND SOUTH ATLANTIC 1. The authority citation for part 622 continues to read as follows: ■ Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq. 2. Amend § 622.39 by: a. Lifting the suspension on paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(C); ■ b. Revising paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(C); and ■ c. Removing paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(D). The revision reads as follows: ■ ■ § 622.39 Quotas. * * * * * (a) * * * (1) * * * (iii) * * * (C) Red grouper—3.00 million lb (1.36 million kg). * * * * * ■ 3. Amend § 622.41 by: ■ a. Lifting the suspension on paragraph (e); ■ b. Revising paragraph (e); and ■ c. Removing paragraph (r). The revision reads as follows: § 622.41 Annual catch limits (ACLs), annual catch targets (ACTs), and accountability measures (AMs). * * * * * (e) Red grouper—(1) Commercial sector. The IFQ program for groupers and tilefishes in the Gulf of Mexico serves as the accountability measure for commercial red grouper. The commercial ACT for red grouper is equal to the applicable quota specified in § 622.39(a)(1)(iii)(C). The applicable commercial ACL for red grouper, in gutted weight, is 3.16 million lb (1.43 million kg). (2) Recreational sector. (i) Without regard to overfished status, if red grouper recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, reach or are projected to reach the applicable ACL specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, the AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register, to close the recreational sector for the remainder of the fishing year. On and after the effective date of such a notification, the bag and possession limit of red grouper in or from the Gulf EEZ is zero. This bag and possession limit applies in the Gulf on board a vessel for which a valid Federal charter vessel/headboat permit for Gulf reef fish has been issued, without regard to where such species were harvested, i.e. in state or Federal waters. (ii) Without regard to overfished status, and in addition to the measures specified in paragraph (e)(2)(i) of this PO 00000 Frm 00102 Fmt 4700 Sfmt 9990 section, if red grouper recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, exceed the applicable ACL specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, the AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to maintain the red grouper ACT, specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, for that following fishing year at the level of the prior year’s ACT, unless the best scientific information available determines that maintaining the prior year’s ACT is unnecessary. In addition, the notification will reduce the length of the recreational red grouper fishing season the following fishing year by the amount necessary to ensure red grouper recreational landings do not exceed the recreational ACT in the following fishing year. (iii) If red grouper are overfished, based on the most recent Status of U.S. Fisheries Report to Congress, and red grouper recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, exceed the applicable ACL specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, the following measures will apply. In addition to the measures specified in paragraphs (e)(2)(i) and (ii) of this section, the AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register, at or near the beginning of the following fishing year to reduce the ACL for that following year by the amount of the ACL overage in the prior fishing year, and reduce the ACT, as determined in paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of this section, by the amount of the ACL overage in the prior fishing year, unless the best scientific information available determines that a greater, lesser, or no overage adjustment is necessary. (iv) The recreational ACL for red grouper, in gutted weight, is 1.00 million lb (0.45 million kg). The recreational ACT for red grouper, in gutted weight, is 0.92 million lb (0.42 million kg). * * * * * [FR Doc. 2019–21005 Filed 9–30–19; 8:45 am] BILLING CODE 3510–22–P E:\FR\FM\01OCR1.SGM 01OCR1

Agencies

[Federal Register Volume 84, Number 190 (Tuesday, October 1, 2019)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 52036-52038]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2019-21005]



[[Page 52036]]

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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 622

[Docket No. 190923-0034]
RIN 0648-BI95


Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic; 
Reef Fish Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico; Red Grouper Management 
Measures

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Final rule.

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SUMMARY: NMFS issues regulations to implement management measures 
described in a framework action to the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) 
for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf), as prepared 
by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council). This final 
rule reduces the red grouper commercial and recreational annual catch 
limits (ACLs) and annual catch targets (ACTs). The purpose of this rule 
is to continue the Gulf red grouper commercial and recreational ACL and 
ACT reductions implemented through emergency rulemaking in 2019 to 
protect the red grouper stock.

DATES: This final rule is effective October 31, 2019.

ADDRESSES: Electronic copies of the framework action, which includes an 
environmental assessment, a regulatory impact review, and a Regulatory 
Flexibility Act (RFA) analysis may be obtained from the Southeast 
Regional Office website at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/framework-action-modification-gulf-mexico-red-grouper-annual-catch-limits-and-annual-catch.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Peter Hood, NMFS Southeast Regional 
Office, telephone: 727-824-5305, email: [email protected].

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: NMFS and the Council manage the Gulf reef 
fish fishery under the FMP. The FMP, which includes red grouper, was 
prepared by the Council and is implemented by NMFS through regulations 
at 50 CFR part 622 under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery 
Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act) (16 U.S.C. 1801 
et seq.).
    On July 19, 2019, NMFS published a proposed rule for the framework 
action and requested public comment (84 FR 34845). The proposed rule 
and the framework action outline the rationale for the actions 
contained in this final rule. A summary of the management measures 
described in the framework action and implemented by this final rule is 
described below.
    Unless otherwise noted, all weights described in this rule are in 
gutted weight.

Background

    For 2018, the red grouper commercial ACL was 8,190,000 lb 
(3,714,922 kg) and the commercial ACT (commercial quota) was 7,780,000 
lb (3,528,949 kg); while the red grouper recreational ACL was 2,580,000 
lb (1,170,268 kg) and the recreational ACT was 2,370,000 lb (1,075,014 
kg).
    At the October 2018 meeting, the Council received a recommendation 
from its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) to reduce the red 
grouper commercial and recreational ACLs and ACTs, effective for the 
2019 fishing year. Since 2014, combined commercial and recreational 
Gulf red grouper landings have trended downwards from over 7.26 million 
lb (3.29 million kg) in 2014 to approximately 4.16 million lb (1.89 
million kg) in 2017. The most recent red grouper stock assessment 
(Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) 61), was not scheduled 
for completion until later in 2019. Therefore, the NMFS Southeast 
Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) conducted an interim red grouper stock 
analysis to assist the SSC in developing harvest advice for the 2019 
fishing year. This analysis suggested that the stock may be declining 
and supported recommending that the Council reduce the 2019 Gulf red 
grouper total ACL to 4.60 million lb (2.09 million kg).
    In addition to the SSC's advice based on the interim analysis, the 
Council heard public testimony at the October 2018 meeting primarily 
from commercial fishermen. These fishermen expressed concern about the 
status of the red grouper stock, noting that red grouper are harder to 
catch than in previous years and that there appears to be a scarcity of 
legal-size and larger fish throughout the species' range on the west 
Florida shelf. The Council also discussed the severe red tide 
conditions that occurred off the Florida west coast in the summer and 
fall of 2018, which may have adversely affected the red grouper stock. 
Based on these recommendations, the Council requested that NMFS 
implement an emergency or interim rule to reduce the Gulf red grouper 
stock ACL for the 2019 fishing year to 4.60 million lb (2.09 million 
kg), or equal to the 2017 total red grouper landings level, whichever 
is less. The Council also began work on this red grouper framework 
action to reduce the red grouper catch limits beyond 2019.
    The 2017 combined red grouper commercial and recreational landings 
(approximately 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg)) were less than the 
SSC recommended combined ACL of 4.60 million lb (2.09 million kg). 
Therefore, NMFS implemented an emergency rule (84 FR 22389, May 17, 
2019) to reduce the red grouper commercial and recreational ACLs and 
ACTs consistent with a stock ACL of 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg). 
The emergency rule is effective through November 13, 2019, and may be 
extended for a maximum of an additional 186 days.

Management Measures Contained in This Final Rule

    This final rule continues the red grouper ACLs and ACTs implemented 
by the emergency rule for the 2019 fishing year. Based on the framework 
action, the stock ACL is 4.16 million lb (1.89 million kg), which is 
equal to the 2017 combined red grouper commercial and recreational 
landings. Applying the commercial allocation of 76 percent results in a 
commercial ACL of 3.16 million lb (1.43 million kg). The commercial ACT 
is set at 95 percent of the commercial ACL, or 3.00 million lb (1.36 
million kg).
    For the recreational sector, 24 percent of the 4.16 million lb 
(1.89 million kg) total stock ACL results in a recreational ACL of 1.00 
million lb (0.45 million kg). The recreational ACT is set at 92 percent 
of the recreational ACL, or 0.92 million lb (0.42 million kg).
    The ACLs and ACTs implemented through the emergency action and 
continued through the promulgation of this rule are expected to benefit 
the stock. As described in the framework action, indicators suggest the 
stock may be in decline and that harvest levels need to be lowered. The 
stock has been assessed through SEDAR 61 and the Council's SSC is 
expected to make a new catch level recommendation in September 2019. 
The Council expects the reductions in ACLs and ACTs implemented by this 
final rule to lessen the impact of any possible future changes in the 
ACLs and ACTs in response to the information and catch level 
recommendation derived from SEDAR 61.

Comments and Responses

    NMFS received 15 comments on the proposed rule for the framework 
action.

[[Page 52037]]

The majority of the comments supported the proposed rule and the 
framework action. Some comments supporting the action suggested that 
additional management measures are necessary to protect the stock, such 
as prohibiting commercial and recreational fishing during the spawning 
season, reducing the recreational bag limit and season length, and 
increasing the commercial size limit.
    Comments specific to the framework action and the proposed rule are 
grouped as appropriate and summarized below, each followed by NMFS' 
respective response.
    Comment 1: Because of the uncertainty in recreational landings 
estimates, additional measures such as a lower bag limit and longer 
seasonal closure should be implemented for the recreational sector to 
protect the stock.
    Response: NMFS acknowledges that uncertainty exists in estimating 
recreational landings. However, NMFS does not agree that additional 
recreational management measures are needed at this time to protect the 
red grouper stock. The catch levels established through this final rule 
are equal to 2017 harvest levels. In addition, preliminary data show 
that 867,118 lb (393,318 kg), gutted weight, were landed in 2018. This 
is below the 1.00 million lb (0.45 million kg) ACL and 0.92 million lb 
(0.42 million kg) ACT implemented through this final rule. Thus, NMFS 
expects the 2019 recreational season to remain open all year under the 
current 2-fish red grouper recreational bag limit. However, should 
landings reach or be projected to reach the recreational ACL, NMFS is 
required to close the recreational sector for the remainder of the 
fishing year.
    NMFS estimates Gulf red grouper and other reef fish recreational 
landings from information collected through the Marine Recreational 
Information Program (MRIP), Southeast Headboat Survey (SHS), Louisiana 
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries creel survey, and the Texas Parks 
and Wildlife Department creel survey. Before these data are used to 
monitor landings, NMFS checks for errors and generates any necessary 
weight estimates. With respect to private angler landings, NMFS has 
improved MRIP to reduce bias identified by the National Academies of 
Sciences by modifying both the angler intercept survey, which collects 
information at the dock, and the household survey, which collects 
information by contacting anglers at home. With respect to the for-hire 
component, NMFS is working to implement an electronic data reporting 
system that will require all federally permitted headboats and charter 
vessels to report landings after every trip. Currently, headboats 
report weekly and MRIP collects information from charter vessels 
randomly through a survey that is used to produce bi-monthly catch 
estimates. Thus, NMFS expects the accuracy of recreational landings 
estimate to continue to improve.
    Comment 2: Both the commercial and recreational sectors should be 
closed to red grouper fishing during the spawning season.
    Response: For this framework action, the Council only considered 
reducing the red grouper ACLs and ACTs. However, current regulations do 
protect the stock during some of the spawning season.
    Based on information from the SEDAR 42 red grouper stock 
assessment, the majority of spawning occurs between March and June and 
in waters deeper than 20 fathoms. For the recreational sector, there is 
a February 1 through March 31 shallow-water grouper closed season 
seaward of a line approximating the 20 fathom contour in the eastern 
Gulf. Although this closure was implemented to protect gag spawning 
aggregations, the closed season protects other grouper species that 
spawn offshore during those months, including red grouper. In addition, 
there are areas closed to reef fish fishing in the Gulf that are in 
effect year-round (e.g., Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps) or 
seasonally (e.g., The Edges; closed from January through April).
    For the commercial sector, the individual fishing quota (IFQ) 
program does allow red grouper fishing year-round, but the area 
closures referred to previously apply. In addition, from June through 
August, bottom longline gear is not allowed shoreward of a line 
approximating the 50 fathom contour. Because the majority of landed red 
grouper are caught with bottom longline gear in waters shallower than 
50 fathoms, this seasonal prohibition affords some protection to the 
spawning stock.
    NMFS expects a new stock assessment (SEDAR 61) for red grouper to 
be complete in the fall of 2019. Based on the assessment results, the 
Council may take further action to protect the red grouper stock, which 
could include revisions to seasonal closures.
    Comment 3: To increase protection to the red grouper stock, the 
commercial minimum size limit should be increased from 18 inches (45.7 
cm) to 20 inches (50.8 cm) total length (TL), consistent with the 
current recreational minimum size limit.
    Response: NMFS disagrees. The commercial minimum size limit was 
reduced from 20 inches (50.8 cm) TL through the final rule implementing 
Amendment 30B to the FMP in 2009 (74 FR 17603; April 16, 2009). The 
Council and NMFS made this change to reduce discard mortality in the 
commercial fishing sector. Size limit analyses showed that reducing the 
size limit, especially in the commercial longline component of the 
fishery, was expected to decrease the number of discarded fish and 
increase the yield-per-recruit, which benefits the stock.
    Comment 4: Reducing the red grouper commercial quota has driven-up 
lease prices for allocation and harmed small IFQ fishing operations.
    Response: NMFS recognizes that the price of allocation has likely 
increased as a result of the decrease in the commercial quota 
implemented through the emergency rule, and that allocation prices will 
likely continue to be higher as a result of this final rule. However, 
as explained previously, the purpose of this framework action is to 
protect the red grouper stock, which has shown signs of decline. 
Further, as explained in the framework action, NMFS expects the impact 
to those fishermen who lease allocation to be lessened by a foreseeable 
increase in the ex-vessel prices for red grouper.

Classification

    Pursuant to section 304(b)(1)(A) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the 
NMFS Assistant Administrator has determined that this final rule is 
consistent with the FMP, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and other applicable 
laws, subject to further consideration after public comment.
    This rule has been determined to be not significant for purposes of 
Executive Order 12866. This rule is not an E.O. 13771 regulatory action 
because this rule is not significant under E.O. 12866.
    The Magnuson-Stevens Act provides the statutory basis for this 
rule. No duplicative, overlapping, or conflicting Federal rules have 
been identified. In addition, no new reporting, record-keeping, or 
other compliance requirements are introduced by this final rule.
    NMFS published the proposed rule for the framework action and 
prepared an Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis (IRFA) to accompany 
the proposed action. The IRFA concluded that the action would have a 
significant adverse impact on the average annual 330 small commercial 
fishing businesses and their combined 376 federally permitted fishing 
vessels that harvest red grouper from the Gulf.

[[Page 52038]]

    A final regulatory flexibility analysis (FRFA) parallels the IRFA 
and must also include a summary of significant issues raised by public 
comments in response to the IRFA, any changes in the action in response 
to those comments or new information, a description of the steps the 
agency took to minimize the adverse economic impact on small entities, 
and why it selected the alternative adopted.
    The Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the Small Business Administration 
did not file any comments on the proposed rule. No public comments were 
received on the IRFA or the economic impacts of the rule more 
generally. NMFS has not received any new information that would affect 
its previous determination. As a result, the estimates and conclusions 
of the IRFA have not changed, and the IRFA is incorporated by 
reference.
    An emergency rule reduced the red grouper commercial quota for 2019 
to 3.00 million lb (1.36 million kg). This final rule will maintain 
that reduction of the red grouper quota for 2020 and beyond, unless 
modified by the Council. The Council considered two other alternatives 
to the commercial quota revision: Either no change or a reduction to 
3.32 million lb (1.51 million kg). The no-action alternative has no 
short-term impacts on small businesses, but was not selected by the 
Council because it allows for declining status of the stock. The second 
non-selected alternative has smaller short-term costs than the selected 
alternative, but it may not provide for sufficient protection of the 
stock.
    Section 212 of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness 
Act of 1996 states that, for each rule or group of related rules for 
which an agency is required to prepare a FRFA, the agency shall publish 
one or more guides to assist small entities in complying with the rule, 
and shall designate such publications as small entity compliance 
guides. As part of the rulemaking process, NMFS prepared a fishery 
bulletin, which also serves as a small entity compliance guide. The 
fishery bulletin will be sent to all interested parties.

List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 622

    Commercial, Fisheries, Fishing, Gulf, Recreational, Red grouper.

    Dated: September 24, 2019.
Samuel D. Rauch III,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.

    For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR part 622 is amended 
as follows:

PART 622--FISHERIES OF THE CARIBBEAN, GULF OF MEXICO, AND SOUTH 
ATLANTIC

0
1. The authority citation for part 622 continues to read as follows:

    Authority:  16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.

0
2. Amend Sec.  622.39 by:
0
a. Lifting the suspension on paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(C);
0
 b. Revising paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(C); and
0
 c. Removing paragraph (a)(1)(iii)(D).
    The revision reads as follows:


Sec.  622.39  Quotas.

* * * * *
    (a) * * *
    (1) * * *
    (iii) * * *
    (C) Red grouper--3.00 million lb (1.36 million kg).
* * * * *

0
3. Amend Sec.  622.41 by:
0
 a. Lifting the suspension on paragraph (e);
0
b. Revising paragraph (e); and
0
 c. Removing paragraph (r).
    The revision reads as follows:


Sec.  622.41  Annual catch limits (ACLs), annual catch targets (ACTs), 
and accountability measures (AMs).

* * * * *
    (e) Red grouper--(1) Commercial sector. The IFQ program for 
groupers and tilefishes in the Gulf of Mexico serves as the 
accountability measure for commercial red grouper. The commercial ACT 
for red grouper is equal to the applicable quota specified in Sec.  
622.39(a)(1)(iii)(C). The applicable commercial ACL for red grouper, in 
gutted weight, is 3.16 million lb (1.43 million kg).
    (2) Recreational sector. (i) Without regard to overfished status, 
if red grouper recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, reach or 
are projected to reach the applicable ACL specified in paragraph 
(e)(2)(iv) of this section, the AA will file a notification with the 
Office of the Federal Register, to close the recreational sector for 
the remainder of the fishing year. On and after the effective date of 
such a notification, the bag and possession limit of red grouper in or 
from the Gulf EEZ is zero. This bag and possession limit applies in the 
Gulf on board a vessel for which a valid Federal charter vessel/
headboat permit for Gulf reef fish has been issued, without regard to 
where such species were harvested, i.e. in state or Federal waters.
    (ii) Without regard to overfished status, and in addition to the 
measures specified in paragraph (e)(2)(i) of this section, if red 
grouper recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, exceed the 
applicable ACL specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, the 
AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to 
maintain the red grouper ACT, specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this 
section, for that following fishing year at the level of the prior 
year's ACT, unless the best scientific information available determines 
that maintaining the prior year's ACT is unnecessary. In addition, the 
notification will reduce the length of the recreational red grouper 
fishing season the following fishing year by the amount necessary to 
ensure red grouper recreational landings do not exceed the recreational 
ACT in the following fishing year.
    (iii) If red grouper are overfished, based on the most recent 
Status of U.S. Fisheries Report to Congress, and red grouper 
recreational landings, as estimated by the SRD, exceed the applicable 
ACL specified in paragraph (e)(2)(iv) of this section, the following 
measures will apply. In addition to the measures specified in 
paragraphs (e)(2)(i) and (ii) of this section, the AA will file a 
notification with the Office of the Federal Register, at or near the 
beginning of the following fishing year to reduce the ACL for that 
following year by the amount of the ACL overage in the prior fishing 
year, and reduce the ACT, as determined in paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of this 
section, by the amount of the ACL overage in the prior fishing year, 
unless the best scientific information available determines that a 
greater, lesser, or no overage adjustment is necessary.
    (iv) The recreational ACL for red grouper, in gutted weight, is 
1.00 million lb (0.45 million kg). The recreational ACT for red 
grouper, in gutted weight, is 0.92 million lb (0.42 million kg).
* * * * *

[FR Doc. 2019-21005 Filed 9-30-19; 8:45 am]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P