Request for Comments: Proposed Designation of Habitat Areas of Particular Concern and Associated Fishing Regulations in Gulf of Mexico Federal Waters

September 26, 2019

FB19-054 Gulf of Mexico Fishery Bulletin; For more information contact Lauren Waters. 727-524-5305, lauren.waters@noaa.gov

KEY MESSAGE:

NOAA Fisheries requests your comments on Amendment 9 to the Fishery Management Plan for Coral and Coral Reef Resources in Gulf of Mexico U.S. waters Comments are due by November 25, 2019. 

Actions in Amendment 9 would establish 13 new habitat areas of particular concern with fishing regulations, designate 8 new areas without fishing regulations, and modify the regulations in 3 existing areas. 

Fishing regulations would apply to fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, including fishing for highly migratory species.

 

SUMMARY OF PROPOSED CHANGES:

For the proposed changes below, except where otherwise stated, bottom-tending gear is defined as:  bottom longline, bottom trawl, buoy gear, dredge, pot or trap, and bottom anchoring by fishing vessels.  Buoy gear does not refer to highly migratory species buoy gear, which is not a bottom-tending gear. 

The amendment and implementing rule would:

  • Establish the following areas as habitat areas of particular concern with regulations prohibiting fishing with bottom tending gear: West Florida Wall, Alabama Alps, L&W Pinnacles, Scamp Reef, Mississippi Canyon 118, Roughtongue Reef, Viosca Knoll 826, Green Canyon 852, and AT 357, Southern Bank, and Harte Bank.
  • Establish Viosca Knoll 862/906 as a habitat area of particular concern with regulations prohibiting fishing with bottom tending gear, but allow royal red shrimp fisherman to keep their nets in the water in this area.
  • Within the current Pulley Ridge habitat area of particular concern, establish a new habitat area of particular concern with fishing regulations prohibiting all fishing with bottom tending gear, except for long line gear.
  • Establish the following areas as habitat areas of particular concern without fishing regulation: South John Reed, Garden Banks 299, Garden Banks 535, Green Canyon 140 and 272 (combined), Green Canyon 234, Green Canyon 354, Mississippi Canyon 751, and Mississippi Canyon 885
  • An interactive map of existing and proposed areas can be found online at http://portal.gulfcouncil.org/coralhapc.html
  • Additionally, the proposed rule associated with this amendment would modify the prohibitions on “fishing with bottom-tending gear” to “deployment of bottom-tending gear” for habitat areas of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico, including those proposed in Amendment 9.  “Deploy” would be defined for the purpose of these prohibitions to mean that the gear is in contact with the water.   

 

REQUEST FOR COMMENT:

NOAA Fisheries must receive comments no later than  November 25, 2019.  You may obtain electronic copies of the draft amendment from the NOAA Fisheries Web site at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/amendment-9-coral-habitat-areas-considered-management-gulf-mexico.

HOW TO COMMENT:

The comment period is open now through November 25, 2019.  The comment period on the proposed rule is expected to fall within this same time, and comments on both the amendment and proposed rule will be considered in the final rule.  You may submit comments by electronic submission or by postal mail.  Comments sent by any other method (such as e-mail), to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NOAA Fisheries.

FORMAL FEDERAL REGISTER NAME/NUMBER:  84 FR 50814 published September 26, 2019.

Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. 

1. Go to: https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2017-0146.

2. Click the "Comment Now!" icon, complete the required fields.

3. Enter or attach your comments.

 

Mail: Submit written comments to Lauren Waters, Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQs)

 

What is essential fish habitat and habitat areas of particular concern?

  • Essential fish habitat for corals are those waters and substrate necessary to fish (including shallow water, mesophotic, and deep-waters coral) for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity.
  • Habitat areas of particular concern are a subset of essential fish habitat that meets one or more of the following criteria: 1) importance of ecological function provided by the habitat; 2) area or habitat is sensitive to human induced degradation; 3) the habitat is stressed; 4) is considered rare.

What are deep-water and mesophotic corals?

  • Deep-water corals live in light-limited environments deeper than 164 ft (27 fathoms) and can survive for hundreds to thousands of years. 
  • Mesophotic coral zones have corals that exist in depth ranges from about 100 ft (17 fathoms) to approximately 500 ft (83 fathoms).  Mesophotic coral ecosystems can have both shallow-water corals, deep-water corals, and corals that exist in low light to no light conditions.
  • Deep-water and mesophotic corals provide complex habitat for many species of grouper, snapper, shrimp, and crabs.

Why are these measures necessary?

  • Corals and coral habitat meet the criteria as habitat areas of particular concern because they are especially sensitive to human-induced degradation by fishing and non-fishing activities.
  • Each fishery management plan must minimize adverse effects to essential fish habitat caused by fishing. Designating these areas as habitat areas of particular concern helps identify these areas as important to protect and manage regarding fishing impacts.
  • This amendment would protect coral species and essential fish habitat and maintain suitable marine fishery habitat quality and quantity to support sustainable fisheries.

Why are these particular areas being proposed as habitat areas of particular concern?

  • These areas have been identified as having sufficient numbers and diversity of deep-water corals to be considered essential fish habitat.  Each fishery management plan must minimize, to the extent practicable, adverse effects on these habitats caused by fishing.

Where are the proposed habitat areas of particular concern areas?

Most of the areas are extremely deep and fishing activity is sparse.  The areas occur throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the locations can be viewed using the interactive map at https://portal.gulfcouncil.org/coralhapc.html.

If there is so little fishing activity, why are these areas being proposed as habitat areas of particular concern?

  • These measures help prevent future fishing impacts, and having the areas mapped brings awareness to these unique areas and assists fishermen in avoiding these areas.

What gear is proposed to be prohibited?

  • Fishing with bottom-tending gear will be prohibited in 13 of the proposed areas.  Bottom-tending gear includes bottom longline, bottom trawl, buoy gear, dredge, pot or trap, and bottom anchoring by fishing vessels. 
  • Dredge fishing will also be prohibited in three existing habitat areas of particular concern. 
  • Bottom longline gear will be allowed in the proposed area at Pulley Ridge.

Who would be affected by these regulations?

  • Gulf of Mexico fishermen who use bottom-tending gear or bottom anchor their fishing vessels, including those issued highly migratory species permits such as a shark permit, could be directly affected.  However, very little fishing activity is known to take place in these areas.

Why is it necessary to change the prohibition in habitat areas of particular concern from“fishing with bottom-tending gear” to “deployment of bottom-tending gear”?

  • During discussions associated with Amendment 9, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council determined that the broad definition of “fishing” in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Code of Federal Regulations may unnecessarily restrict activities that will have no impact on these habitats.  The Council requested an action to define “deploy” as gear in contact with the water, for coral habitat areas of particular concern.

Why are royal red shrimp fishermen exempt from the prohibition on deployment of bottom-tending gear at Viosca Knoll 862/906?

  • Shrimpers with the royal red shrimp endorsement participate in the deepest shrimping activity in the Gulf of Mexico.  As such retrieving their nets and gear takes several miles of continuous forward movement.
  • Trawling for royal red shrimp is not occurring on the actual reef, but to the west on the soft bottom area around it.  Nets are lifted from the bottom for retrieval before reaching the reef area in order to avoid impacts to the reef and fishing gear.
  • Allowing the royal red shrimp fishermen to continue to use the area historically used to retrieve their gear avoids negative direct economic effects while preventing future impacts to the area from other bottom tending gear.

Where can I find more information on Coral Amendment 9?

By Mail: Lauren Waters

NOAA Fisheries,

Southeast Regional Office

Sustainable Fisheries Division

13th Avenue South

St. Petersburg, Florida 33701-5505

By Phone: (727) 824-5305


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