Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region

Oculina Comment Periods Open.

NMFS issues this proposed rule to implement Amendment 13A to the Fishery Management Plan for the Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region. This rule would extend the current prohibitions on fishing for South Atlantic snapper-grouper in the experimental closed area and on retaining such species in or from the area. The experimental closed area constitutes a portion of the Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern, which is in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Atlantic Ocean off Ft. Pierce, FL.DATES: Written comments on this proposed rule must be received no later than 5 p.m., eastern time, on January 9, 2004.

ADDRESSES: Written comments on the proposed rule should be sent to Julie Weeder, Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 9721 Executive Center Drive N., St. Petersburg, FL 33702. Comments also may be sent via fax to (727) 570-5583. Comments will not be accepted if submitted via e-mail or Internet.

NMFS, a Regulatory Impact Review, and

a Social Impact Assessment/Fishery

Impact Statement.

Written comments on the proposed

rule must be sent to Julie Weeder,

Southeast Regional Office, NMFS, 9721

Executive Center Drive N., St.

Petersburg, FL 33702. Comments also

may be sent via fax to 727–570–5583.

Comments will not be accepted if

submitted via e-mail or Internet.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Julie

Weeder, telephone: 727–570–5753, fax:

727–570–5583, e-mail:

Julie.Weeder@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The

snapper-grouper fishery off the southern

Atlantic states is managed under the

FMP. The FMP was prepared by the

South Atlantic Fishery Management

Council (Council) and is implemented

under the authority of the Magnuson-

Stevens Fishery Conservation and

Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens

Act) by regulations at 50 CFR part 622.

In Amendment 6 to the FMP the

Council proposed prohibitions on

fishing for South Atlantic snappergrouper

in what is currently known as

the experimental closed area and on

retaining such species in or from the

area. NMFS approved these

prohibitions, and they became effective

June 27, 1994 (59 FR27242, May 26,

1994). In the experimental closed area,any South Atlantic snapper-grouper

taken incidentally by hook-and-line gear

must be released immediately by cutting

the line without removing the fish from

the water.

The experimental closed area is

slightly less than 92 square nautical

miles in the EEZ offshore from Ft. Pierce

to Sebastian Inlet, FL. The geographical

coordinates are specified at 50 CFR

622.35(c)(2). The experimental closed

area constitutes a portion of the

southern part of the Oculina Bank

HAPC. In the entire HAPC no person

may: (1) Use a bottom longline, bottom

trawl, dredge, pot, or trap; (2) if aboard

a fishing vessel, anchor, use an anchor

and chain, or use a grapple and chain;

or (3) fish for rock shrimp or possess

rock shrimp in or from the area on board

a fishing vessel.

Both the proposed and final rules for

Amendment 6 stated that the measures

applicable to the experimental closed

area ’’… will ‘‘sunset’’ after 10 years if

not reauthorized by the Council.’’(59 FR

9721, March 1, 1994 and 59 FR 27242,

May 26, 1994, respectively).

As stated above, measures applicable

to the experimental closed area were

intended to enhance stock stability and

increase recruitment of South Atlantic

snapper-grouper by providing an area

where deepwater snapper-grouper

species could grow and reproduce

without being subjected to fishing

mortality. They were based on the

Council’s concern that traditional

fishery management measures, such as

minimum size limits and quotas, might

not be sufficient to protect fully the

snapper-grouper resources. The Council

believed the measures would provide

protection for overfished species in the

management unit while minimizing

adverse impacts upon user groups.

Based on limited information, there

appear to be some encouraging signs of

positive biological impacts from the

initial 9–year prohibition of fishing for

snapper grouper species within the

experimental closed area since it was

established in 1994. A study conducted

in 2001 found that, in the few areas

where habitat remained intact, there

were more and larger groupers

thanobserved in a 1995 study, and male

gag and scamp were also common. The

observation of male gag and scamp is

particularly of interest because size, age,

and proportion of males of these species

have declined both in the Gulf of

Mexico and South Atlantic regions.

Other encouraging signs include

theobservation of juvenile speckled

hind, which is a candidate species for

listing under the Endangered Species

Act. However, species in themanagement unit remain overfished and

continued protection is required.

Proposed Actions

Amendment 13A proposes to

continue the current measures

applicable to the experimental closed

area indefinitely. Those measures at 50

CFR 622(c)(2) read as follows:

‘‘(2) Experimental closed area. Within the

Oculina Bank HAPC, the experimental closed

area is bounded on the north by 27°53′ N.

lat., on the south by 27°30′ N. lat., on the east

by 79°56′ W. long., and on the west by 80°00′

W. long. No person may fish for South

Atlantic snapper-grouper in the experimental

closedarea, and no person may retain South

Atlantic snapper-grouper in or from the area.

In the experimental closed area, any South

Atlantic snapper-grouper taken incidentally

by hook-and-line gear must be released

immediately by cutting the line without

removing the fish from the water.’’

The Council would review the

configuration and size of the

experimental closed area within 3 years

of the publication date of the final rule

that would implement Amendment 13A

and would re-evaluate all measures

applicable to the area after 10 years. The

Council believes these actions provide

the most biological, social, and

economic benefits while allowing for

adaptive management. Extending the

prohibition on fishing for snappergrouper

species in the experimental

closed area for an indefinite period will

continue to protect snapper-grouper

populations and protect Oculina coral

and associated habitat. Such extension

will also provide a hedge against the

high degree of scientific uncertainty

associated with the status of snappergrouper

species and reduce the

possibility that these populations may

fall below sustainable levels.

Economically it is expected that the

long-term benefits, such as ‘‘insurance’’

against the uncertainty of stock

assessments and the non-use benefits of

extending the prohibitions on snappergrouper

fishing in the closed area,

outweigh the short-term benefits of

opening the area to harvest. These

measures are also expected to provide

the most long-term positive social

impacts because they allow for adaptive

management which can be seen as an

assurance to the public that the area will

be monitored and reviewed. Should the

Council find after the 3–year review on

size and configuration that the

boundaries of the area are not

appropriate, they can be changed at that

time. In addition, the 10–year reevaluation

period will assure the public

that the area will not be closed and

forgotten.Availability of Amendment 13A

Additional background and rationale

for the measures discussed above are

contained in Amendment 13A. The

availability of Amendment 13A was

announced in the Federal Register on

November 4, 2003, (68 FR 62422).

Written comments on Amendment 13A

must be received by January 5, 2004. All

comments received on Amendment 13A

or on this proposed rule during their

respective comment periods will be

addressed in the preamble to the final

rule.

Classification

At this time, NMFS has not

determined that Amendment 13A is

consistent with the national standards

of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and other

applicable laws. NMFS, in making that

determination, will take into account

the data, views, andcomments received

during the comment period on

Amendment 13A.

This proposed rule has been

determined to be not significant for

purposes of E.O. 12866.

The Council prepared, and NMFS

supplemented, an IRFA, based on the

RIR, that describes the economic

impacts that this proposed rule, if

adopted, would have on small business

entities. A summary of the IRFA

follows:

Amendment 6 to the Snapper-Grouper

Fishery Management Plan, implemented

in May 1994, established a harvest

prohibition for snapper-grouper species

in the Oculina Experimental Closed

Area. This prohibition is scheduled to

sunset in June 2004. The proposed rule

would extend the prohibition for an

indefinite period of time for the purpose

of providing continued protection of

snapper-grouper species, thereby

reducing the possibility that these

populations may fall below sustainable

levels. Further, by restricting the ability

to harvest fish from the area, the

proposed rule is also expected to

provide protection to the Oculina coral

in the area. The Magnuson-Stevens Act,

as amended, provides the statutory basis

for the proposed rule.

No duplicative, overlapping, or

conflicting Federal rules have been

identified. The proposed rule does not

impose any reporting or record keeping

requirements.

There are two general classes of small

entities that would be directly affected

by the proposed rule, commercial

fishing vessels and for-hire fishing

vessels. The Small Business

Administration defines a small business

that engages in commercial fishing as a

firm that is independently owned and

operated, is not dominant in its field of

operation, and hasannual receipts up to

$3.5 million per year. The revenue

benchmark for a small business that

engages in for-hire fishing is a firm that

has annual receipts up to $6.0 million

per year. There were 1,174 commercial

vessels that participated in the snappergrouper

fishery in the South Atlantic

during 2002. Of these vessels, 120 were

homeported in the area of interest,

where the ‘‘area of interest’’ is defined

as those home port locations on the

Florida Atlantic coast from Cape

Canaveral south to West Palm Beach

and are in the closest geographic

proximity to the area covered by the

proposed rule. Commercial vessels

operating in the snapper-grouper fishery

in this area are estimated to have

average annual gross and net incomes of

approximately $39,745 and $12,388,

respectively. Based on this income

profile, it is assumed that all

commercial fishing entities that would

be affected by the proposed rule are

small entities.

For the for-hire sector, 1,221 snappergrouper

for-hire permits were issued to

vessels in the southern Atlantic states in

2002. Of this total, 94 permits were

issued to for-hire vessels in the area of

interest. These vessels comprise two

types of business operations,

charterboats, which are smaller vessels

(6 or fewer passengers) that book trips

on a vessel basis, andheadboats, which

are larger vessels that book passage on

an individual angler basis. The average

gross and net revenues in 1997 for

charterboats operating off the Atlantic

coast of Florida are estimated at $57,000

and $15,000 (2001 dollars), while that of

headboats are estimated at $155,000 and

$69,000 (2001dollars). Based on these

gross revenue profiles, all for-hire

vessels that would be affected by the

proposed rule are assumed to be small

entities.

The number of commercial and forhire

vessels that would fish in the

closed area should the area reopen after

sunset of the current rule is not known.

However, all entities in the area of

interest have the potential to enter the

area. Since all such entities would be

covered by the proposed rule and all

said entities are small entities, it is

concluded that a substantial number of

small entities would be affected by the

proposed rule. An IRFA was prepared to

analyze the expected impacts on small

entities. The proposed rule extending

harvest prohibition for an indefinite

period would not alter present fishing

practices. Therefore, it would not affect

the profitability of identified vessels.

However, if there are any speculative

decisions about the sunset of the

existing rule in June 2004, there could

be some reduction in future speculative

earnings. The public is invited to

comment and to provide any

information that would enable NMFS to

identify and assess any future potential

economic impacts that could result from

the proposed rule.

Five alternatives to the proposed rule

were considered. One alternative differs

from the proposed rule only in that it

lacks a specific schedule for reevaluation

of the rule. Three alternatives

also lack a re-evaluation schedule and

differ from the proposed rule in the

duration of the prohibition. No impacts

have been identified associated with the

presence or absence ofa prescribed reevaluation

schedule. These four

alternatives, therefore, are expected to

have the same effect on the affected

entities as the proposed rule, and none

would adversely affect current

profitability but would, instead,

eliminate potential increased short-term

profits that might be derived from

fishing activity directed into the

Oculina area, should sunset occur. The

fifth alternative, the no-action

alternative, would allow forsunset of the

prohibition and fishing in the area to

occur. This alternative would, therefore,

allow these potential short-term

increases in profits to occur. However,

if snapper-grouper populations become

depleted as a result of directed effort

insidethe area, the short-term gains

would dissipate. Further, these potential

short-term profits are not believed to be

greater than the benefits that would

accrue to continued protection of the

resource and area. These benefits are

expected to exceed potential short-term

profits no matter how long the

prohibition continues. The proposed

rule, therefore, would best suit

management needs and meet the

Council’s intent.

Changes to Regulatory Text

If approved, the measures in

Amendment 13A would continue in

effect in the current regulations.

Accordingly, this proposed rule

contains no changes to regulatory text.

If Amendment 13A is disapproved, the

regulatory text at 50 CFR 622.35(c)(2)

would be removed effective June 27,

2004.

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

Dated: November 19, 2003.

Rebecca Lent,

Deputy Assistant Administrator for

Regulatory Programs, National Marine

Fisheries Service.

[FR Doc. 03–29444 Filed 11–24–03; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3510–22–S

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1. THE FOLLOWING AIDS HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY RELOCATED TO FACILITATE MAINTENANCE DREDGE OPERATIONS:
a. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 2 (LLNR 30850) Set at MPP 18-26-46.499N 066-06
-35.544
b. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 3 (LLNR 30855) Set at MPP 18-26-46.472N 066-06
-28.968
c. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 5 (LLNR 30875) Set at MPP 18-26-27.328N 066-06
-28.155
d. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 7 (LLNR 30885) Set at MPP 18-26-05.791N 066-06
-25.774
2. MARINERS ARE RQST TO TRANSIT WITH CAUTION AND MAKE ANY REPORTS TO THE USCG.
CANCEL AT//282310Z MAR 24//

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SCHEDULED/SAN JUAN HARBOR – SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO/ATON/SEC SJ BNM 0011-24

1. THE FOLLOWING AIDS HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY RELOCATED TO FACILITATE MAINTENANCE DREDGE OPERATIONS:
a. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 2 (LLNR 30850) Set at MPP 18-26-46.499N 066-06
-35.544
b. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 3 (LLNR 30855) Set at MPP 18-26-46.472N 066-06
-28.968
c. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 5 (LLNR 30875) Set at MPP 18-26-27.328N 066-06
-28.155
d. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 7 (LLNR 30885) Set at MPP 18-26-05.791N 066-06
-25.774
2. MARINERS ARE RQST TO TRANSIT WITH CAUTION AND MAKE ANY REPORTS TO THE USCG.
CANCEL AT//282310Z MAR 24//

BT

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SCHEDULED/SAN JUAN HARBOR – SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO/ATON/SEC SJ BNM 0011-24

1. THE FOLLOWING AIDS HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY RELOCATED TO FACILITATE MAINTENANCE DREDGE OPERATIONS:
a. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 2 (LLNR 30850) Set at MPP 18-26-46.499N 066-06
-35.544
b. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 3 (LLNR 30855) Set at MPP 18-26-46.472N 066-06
-28.968
c. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 5 (LLNR 30875) Set at MPP 18-26-27.328N 066-06
-28.155
d. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 7 (LLNR 30885) Set at MPP 18-26-05.791N 066-06
-25.774
2. MARINERS ARE RQST TO TRANSIT WITH CAUTION AND MAKE ANY REPORTS TO THE USCG.
CANCEL AT//282310Z MAR 24//

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SCHEDULED/SAN JUAN HARBOR – SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO/ATON/SEC SJ BNM 0011-24

1. THE FOLLOWING AIDS HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY RELOCATED TO FACILITATE MAINTENANCE DREDGE OPERATIONS:
a. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 2 (LLNR 30850) Set at MPP 18-26-46.499N 066-06
-35.544
b. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 3 (LLNR 30855) Set at MPP 18-26-46.472N 066-06
-28.968
c. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 5 (LLNR 30875) Set at MPP 18-26-27.328N 066-06
-28.155
d. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 7 (LLNR 30885) Set at MPP 18-26-05.791N 066-06
-25.774
2. MARINERS ARE RQST TO TRANSIT WITH CAUTION AND MAKE ANY REPORTS TO THE USCG.
CANCEL AT//282310Z MAR 24//

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SCHEDULED/SAN JUAN HARBOR – SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO/ATON/SEC SJ BNM 0011-24

1. THE FOLLOWING AIDS HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY RELOCATED TO FACILITATE MAINTENANCE DREDGE OPERATIONS:
a. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 2 (LLNR 30850) Set at MPP 18-26-46.499N 066-06
-35.544
b. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 3 (LLNR 30855) Set at MPP 18-26-46.472N 066-06
-28.968
c. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 5 (LLNR 30875) Set at MPP 18-26-27.328N 066-06
-28.155
d. Army Terminal Channel Buoy 7 (LLNR 30885) Set at MPP 18-26-05.791N 066-06
-25.774
2. MARINERS ARE RQST TO TRANSIT WITH CAUTION AND MAKE ANY REPORTS TO THE USCG.
CANCEL AT//282310Z MAR 24//

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