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Proposed Rule

Fisheries of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and South Atlantic; Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region; Amendment 43

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Start Preamble

AGENCY:

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

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ACTION:

Proposed rule; request for comments.

SUMMARY:

NMFS proposes to implement management measures described in Amendment 43 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region (FMP), as prepared and submitted by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council). If implemented, this proposed rule would allow for the harvest of red snapper in South Atlantic Federal waters. This proposed rule would revise red snapper commercial and recreational annual catch limits (ACL). The purpose of this proposed rule is to minimize adverse socio-economic effects to fishermen and fishing communities that utilize red snapper as part of the snapper-grouper fishery, while preventing overfishing from occurring and continuing to rebuild the red snapper stock.

DATES:

Written comments on the proposed rule must be received by June 18, 2018.

ADDRESSES:

You may submit comments on the proposed rule, identified by “NOAA-NMFS-2017-0148,” by either of the following methods:

  • Electronic submission: Submit all electronic comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Go to www.regulations.gov/​#!docketDetail;​D=​NOAA-NMFS-2017-0148, click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.
  • Mail: Submit written comments to Frank Helies, NMFS Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

Instructions: Comments sent by any other method, to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NMFS. All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted for public viewing on www.regulations.gov without change. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily by the sender will be publicly accessible. NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter “N/A” in required fields if you wish to remain anonymous).

Electronic copies of Amendment 43 may be obtained from www.regulations.gov or the Southeast Regional Office website at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov. Amendment 43 includes an environmental assessment, regulatory impact review, Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) analysis, and fishery impact statement.

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Frank Helies, NMFS Southeast Regional Office, telephone: 727-824-5305, or email: frank.helies@noaa.gov.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

The snapper-grouper fishery in the South Atlantic region is managed under the FMP and includes red snapper, along with other snapper-grouper species. The FMP 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).

Background

Harvest of red snapper from South Atlantic Federal waters was prohibited in 2010 through a temporary interim rule and then through Amendment 17A to the FMP when the stock was determined to be overfished and undergoing overfishing (Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) 15, 2009)(74 FR 63673, December 4, 2009; 75 FR 76874, December 9, 2010). Amendment 17A also implemented a 35-year red snapper rebuilding plan that began in 2010, and set the red snapper stock ACL at zero. In 2013, Amendment 28 to the FMP established a process that allowed red snapper harvest (ACL greater than zero) if total removals (landings plus dead discards) were less than the acceptable biological catch (ABC) in the previous fishing year (78 FR 44461, July 24, 2013). Using the process established through Amendment 28, limited harvest of red snapper was allowed in 2012, 2013, and 2014. However, because the estimated total removals of red snapper exceeded the ABC in 2014, 2015, and 2016, due to estimates of red snapper discards that were incidentally harvested as bycatch while targeting other species, there was no allowable harvest in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, as a result of new scientific information regarding the red snapper stock, NMFS allowed limited commercial and recreational harvest of red snapper by a temporary rule through emergency action pursuant to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (82 FR 50839, November 2, 2017).

Status of the Stock

The most recent stock assessment for South Atlantic red snapper, SEDAR 41 (2017), was completed in 2016 and subsequently revised in 2017. SEDAR 41 (2017) evaluated data through 2014 and determined the red snapper stock was overfished and that overfishing was occurring. The stock assessment indicated that overfishing was occurring because the estimated fishing mortality based on the average over the last three years of the assessment represented in the model (2012-2014) exceeded the maximum fishing mortality threshold. Though limited red snapper harvest was allowed in 2012-2014, a large majority of the estimated fishing mortality was attributed to very large and uncertain dead discard estimates when fishermen were targeting red snapper and species that co-occur with red snapper, such as vermilion snapper, gag, red grouper, black sea bass, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack, and scamp. The Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) reviewed the SEDAR 41 (2017) stock assessment and indicated the estimate of recreational discards was the greatest source of uncertainty in the stock assessment. It was acknowledged in the assessment that discarding of red snapper has increased over time due to changes in minimum landing size to 20 inches (51 cm) in 1992, increases in abundance of young fish from above-average year classes in some recent years, the introduction of the moratorium in 2010 and 2011, and the small commercial catch limits and recreational bag limits in the mini-seasons for 2012 onwards. Because most of the catch is now discarded, the number of discards is dependent upon fisher recalls, and these estimates are expanded based on small sample size; thus, the quality of total fishery removals estimates is poor and uncertain, which will impact estimation of stock size and fishing mortality.

In May 2016, the Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) reviewed SEDAR 41 (2017) and had an extensive discussion of the uncertainties associated with the assessment. The SSC stated that the assessment was based on the best scientific information available, but noted the assessment findings were highly uncertain regarding to what extent overfishing was occurring (i.e., the actual numerical value of the current fishing mortality estimate), and regarding the measures of discards. The SSC indicated that the most significant sources of uncertainty in the assessment include: The stock-recruitment relationship, natural mortality at age, the age structure of the unfished population, the composition and magnitude of recreational discards (where dead discards greatly outnumbered the landings during the years 2012 through 2014), and potential changes in catch per unit effort (CPUE). The SSC developed its ABC recommendations based on SEDAR 41, and the total ABC recommendation for 2018, is 53,000 red snapper.

The projections of yield streams used in SEDAR 41 (2017) included both landings and dead discards, which were Start Printed Page 22940added to obtain an estimate of the total removals. The SSC divided its 53,000 fish ABC recommendation into landed fish (18,000) and discarded fish (35,000). Because of the recent closures in 2015 and 2016 in the fishery, in January 2017 the Council requested that the NMFS Southeast Fishery Science Center (SEFSC) provide red snapper projections under the assumption that all fish caught are subsequently discarded, believing that such projections would be more informative for management. The SEFSC advised the Council in February 2017 that the requested projections were not appropriate for management use because uncertainty in the assessment was already large, and the uncertainty would increase with a more complete evaluation of the effect of the upcoming changes to Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Recreational catch and effort data, including discards, are monitored through MRIP, which is transitioning from the current telephone survey design to a new mail survey design for estimating marine recreational private angler fishing effort.

Additionally, in their February 2017 response, the SEFSC advised the Council that the uncertainty in the stock assessment inhibits the ability to set an ABC that can be effectively monitored. The SEFSC further stated in an April 2017 letter to the Council, that the use of an ABC based primarily on fishery discards for monitoring the effectiveness of management action is likely ineffective due to the high level of uncertainty in measures of discards and the change in the effort estimation methodology that will be implemented in the MRIP survey. NMFS has determined that, given the extreme uncertainty associated with the red snapper recreational discard estimates, it is not appropriate to rely on those discard estimates for the management of red snapper, and the division of the SSC's ABC recommendation of 53,000 fish into landed fish and discarded fish is unwarranted.

The results of SEDAR 41 (2017) using data through 2014, indicated that the red snapper stock was still overfished, but was rebuilding in accordance with the rebuilding plan. NMFS sent the Council a letter on March 3, 2017, noting these results and the SEFSC's concerns regarding the substantial uncertainty in the assessment, and advising the Council that sufficient steps had been taken to address overfishing of red snapper while continuing to rebuild the stock through harvest prohibitions in 2015 and 2016.

This determination is supported by a significant increase in stock biomass since 2010 to levels not seen since the 1970's, and the increasing abundance of older age classes (SEDAR 41 2017). Additional support for the determination comes from fishery-independent information collected through the Southeast Reef Fish Survey (SERFS) program, and the East Coast Fisheries Independent Monitoring information conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC). According to the SERFS, the relative abundance (CPUE) of red snapper has increased since 2009, reaching the highest level observed in the entire time series (1990-2016) in 2016. In addition, the SERFS program notified the Council at the December 2017 meeting that red snapper relative abundance, as measured through fishery-independent monitoring, increased 18 percent from 2016 to 2017. According to the results of FWCC's study, CPUE for red snapper for hook gear (surveyed in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017) and the standardized index of abundance (surveyed from 2014-2017) was highest in 2017. The FWCC data also showed a greater number of large red snapper and a broader range of ages in recent years, which suggests rebuilding progress of the red snapper stock. Additionally, the increase in relative abundance of red snapper indicated by the fishery-independent CPUE indices has taken place despite landings during the limited seasons in 2012-2014 and despite the large number of estimated red snapper dead discards during the harvest restrictions implemented for red snapper since 2010.

As a result of the new scientific information regarding the red snapper stock, NMFS allowed limited harvest of red snapper beginning November 2, 2017, by a final temporary rule through emergency action (82 FR 50839, November 2, 2017). The amount of harvest allowed in the temporary rule was equivalent to the amount of observed landings in the 2014 fishing season, and this proposed rule would allow the same amount of harvest annually beginning in 2018. NMFS determined that allowing the same amount of harvest as occurred in 2014 was unlikely to result in overfishing or change the red snapper rebuilding time period. NMFS has determined that Amendment 43 is based on the best scientific information available. Additionally, the ACL proposed in Amendment 43 is less than the ABC provided by the SSC from SEDAR 41, in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Standard 1 Guidelines. See 16 U.S.C. 1852(h)(6), 50 CFR 600.310(f)(4)(i).

Management Measure Contained in This Proposed Rule

Based on the actions in Amendment 28, the FMP currently contains total ABCs that are then divided, with one component for landings and another for discards. By changing the process for determining the ACL for red snapper established in Amendment 28, this proposed rule would implement management measures concerning the commercial and recreational harvest, beginning in 2018. Limited commercial and recreational harvest of red snapper would be allowed by implementing a total ACL of 42,510 fish, based on the landings observed during the limited red snapper season in 2014. This ACL is less than the SSC's most recent total ABC recommendation of 53,000 red snapper, and is less than the 79,000 fish landings component of the 135,000 fish total ABC projection for 2018 in Amendment 28. Based on the current sector allocation ratio developed by the Council for red snapper of 28.07 percent commercial and 71.93 percent recreational, the total ACL is divided into a commercial ACL of 124,815 lb (56,615 kg), round weight, and a recreational ACL of 29,656 fish. The commercial sector's ACL is set in pounds of fish because the commercial sector reports landings in weight. Therefore, weight is a more accurate representation of commercial landings. In this proposed rule, for the commercial sector, one red snapper is equivalent to 9.71 lb (4.40 kg), round weight. ACLs for the recreational sector are specified in numbers of fish, because the Council determined that numbers of fish are a more reliable estimate for that sector than specifying the ACL in weight of fish. Because surveys that estimate recreational landings collect information on numbers of fish and convert those numbers to weights using biological samples that are sometimes limited, the Council believes that there can be uncertainty in estimates of recreational landings by weight.

Additional Proposed Changes to Codified Text not in Amendment 43

To implement the limits on red snapper harvest described in Amendment 43, this proposed rule not only would amend the existing regulations to make the changes to the ACLs described above, but also would make other minor modifications to the existing regulations. Thus, the regulatory text of this proposed rule would implement several management Start Printed Page 22941measures in Amendment 43 that function as accountability measures (AMs) to constrain red snapper harvest to these ACLs. Specifically, new language in the regulatory text would set limits on commercial and recreational red snapper seasons by providing that recreational harvest begins on the second Friday in July, and that the recreational season consists of weekends only (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). Under Amendment 43 and the proposed rule's regulatory text, the length of the recreational fishing season would serve as the AM for the recreational sector. The length of the recreational red snapper season would be projected based on catch rate estimates from previous years, and the projected fishing season end-date would be announced in the Federal Register before the start of the season.

Under Amendment 43 and the proposed rule's regulatory text, the commercial season would begin each year on the second Monday in July. If commercial landings reach or are projected to reach the commercial ACL, then the commercial AM would close the sector for the remainder of that current fishing year. NMFS would monitor commercial landings in-season, and if commercial landings reach or are projected to reach the commercial ACL, then NMFS would file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to close the commercial sector for red snapper for the remainder of the fishing year. In 2018, if the recreational and commercial fishing seasons do not open exactly on these dates in July as described, the respective seasons would open as close to these dates as possible.

In addition to setting sector ACLs and AMs for commercial and recreational harvest, this proposed rule would revise the temporal application of the current commercial trip limit of 75 lb (34 kg), gutted weight, and the recreational bag limit of 1 fish per person per day. In an effort to decrease regulatory discards (fish returned to the water because they are below the minimum size limit), no size limits would be implemented for either sector through this proposed rule.

NMFS notes that current regulations contain a severe weather provision with respect to modifying the commercial and recreational sector season dates (50 CFR 622.183(b)(5)(ii)). The Regional Administrator (RA) has the authority to modify the season opening and closing dates if severe weather conditions exist. The RA would determine when severe weather conditions exist, the duration of the severe weather conditions, and which geographic areas are deemed affected by severe weather conditions. If severe weather conditions exist or if NMFS determines the commercial or recreational ACLs were not harvested and a reopening of either or both sectors in the current fishing year would be possible, the RA would file a notification to that effect with the Office of the Federal Register, and include in that notification an announcement of any change in the red snapper commercial and recreational fishing seasons. The regulatory text of this proposed rule does not alter this existing authority.

The Council is currently developing additional amendments to the FMP that would consider other changes to red snapper management in the South Atlantic.

Classification

Pursuant to section 304(b)(1)(A) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the NMFS Assistant Administrator has determined that this proposed rule is consistent with Amendment 43, the FMP, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and other applicable law, subject to further consideration after public comment.

This proposed rule has been determined to be not significant for purposes of Executive Order 12866. NMFS expects this rule would have economic benefits because it would allow for commercial and recreational harvest of red snapper that would not otherwise be expected to occur in the absence of this action.

The Chief Counsel for Regulation of the Department of Commerce certified to the Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the Small Business Administration (SBA) that this proposed rule, if adopted, would not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. The factual basis for this determination follows.

A description of this proposed rule, why it is being considered, and the objectives of this proposed rule are contained in the preamble. The Magnuson-Stevens Act provides the statutory basis for this proposed rule.

This proposed rule would apply to all federally-permitted commercial vessels and recreational anglers that fish for or harvest red snapper in Federal waters of the South Atlantic. Although the proposed rule would apply to recreational anglers, including those that fish from charter vessels and headboats (for-hire vessels), it would not directly affect the business operations of for-hire vessels. For-hire vessels sell fishing services to recreational anglers. The proposed changes to red snapper management measures would not directly alter the services sold by these for-hire vessels. Any change in anglers' demand for these fishing services (and associated economic effects) as a result of the proposed rule would be secondary to any direct effect on anglers and, therefore, would be an indirect effect of the proposed rule. Because the effects on for-hire vessels would be indirect, they fall outside the scope of the RFA. Furthermore, for-hire captains and crew are allowed to retain red snapper under the recreational bag limit; however, they cannot sell these fish. As such, for-hire captains and crew would be directly affected only as recreational anglers. Recreational anglers who would be directly affected by this proposed rule are not considered small entities under the RFA, and are, therefore, outside the scope of this analysis. 5 U.S.C. 603. Small entities include “small businesses,” “small organizations,” and “small governmental jurisdictions.” 5 U.S.C. 601(6) and 601(3)-(5). Recreational anglers are not businesses, organizations, or governmental jurisdictions. In summary, only the impacts on commercial vessels will be discussed.

As of July 10, 2017, there were 544 valid or renewable Federal South Atlantic snapper-grouper unlimited permits and 114 valid or renewable 225-lb trip-limited permits. Each of these commercial permits is associated with an individual vessel. Data from the years of 2012 through 2016 were used for the analysis in Amendment 43, and these data provided the basis for the Council's decisions. On average, from 2012 through 2016, there were only 85 federally-permitted commercial vessels with reported landings of red snapper. Their average annual vessel-level revenue from all species for 2012 through 2016 was approximately $88,000 (2016 dollars). Because the Federal commercial red snapper seasons were very short or did not occur during 2012 through 2016, this proposed action would likely affect more vessels than just those that reported red snapper landings during that time. On average, 582 vessels reported landings of any snapper-grouper species from 2012 through 2016, and their average annual vessel-level revenue from all species was approximately $44,000 (2016 dollars). The maximum annual revenue from all species reported by a single one of these vessels from 2012 through 2016 was approximately $1.38 million (2016 dollars).

For RFA purposes only, NMFS has established a small business size standard for businesses, including their affiliates, whose primary industry is commercial fishing (see 50 CFR 200.2). A business primarily engaged in commercial fishing (NAICS code 11411) Start Printed Page 22942is classified as a small business if independently owned and operated, is not dominant in its field of operation (including its affiliates), and has combined annual receipts not in excess of $11 million for all its affiliated operations worldwide. All of the commercial vessels directly regulated by this proposed rule are believed to be small entities based on the NMFS size standard. No other small entities that would be directly affected by this action have been identified.

Under the current regulations, because combined total commercial and recreational landings and dead discards exceeded the ABC in 2017, there would be no commercial red snapper harvest allowed in 2018. Assuming commercial and recreational red snapper dead discard rates in 2018 and subsequent years remain stable or increase (which is likely as the stock rebuilds), under the current regulations these full-year commercial red snapper harvest closures would be expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Amendment 43 would, however, allow for the commercial harvest of red snapper. It specifies a constant total ACL for red snapper equal to 42,510 fish. The proposed rule would set the commercial red snapper ACL at 124,815 lb (56,615 kg), round weight and the recreational ACL would be set at 29,656 fish. The proposed rule would be expected to increase total ex-vessel revenue by a range of $545,981 (2016 dollars) to $572,901 per year relative to the status quo (i.e., no commercial harvest). Dividing the total ex-vessel revenue per year by the total number of Federal commercial snapper-grouper permit holders, results in an average annual increase in ex-vessel revenue of $830 to $871 per vessel. Dividing the total ex-vessel revenue per year by the average number of commercial vessels that reported landings of any snapper-grouper species from 2012 through 2016, results in an increase in ex-vessel revenue of $938 to $984 per vessel. This would be a 2 percent increase in average annual vessel-level revenue. The annual commercial red snapper season would be expected to increase from 0 days to a range of 105 to 176 days, which would allow commercial vessels to supplement their harvests with red snapper for a substantial part of the fishing year. The economic benefits to each vessel would be expected to vary based on individual fishing practices; however, such distributional effects cannot be quantified with available data.

The information provided above supports a determination that this proposed rule would not have a significant adverse economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. Because this rule, if implemented, is not expected to have a significant adverse economic impact on any small entities, an initial regulatory flexibility analysis is not required and none has been prepared.

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 proposed rule. Accordingly, the Paperwork Reduction Act does not apply to this proposed rule.

Start List of Subjects

List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 622

  • Fisheries
  • Fishing
  • Red snapper
  • South Atlantic
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Dated: May 11, 2018.

Samuel D. Rauch, III,

Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine Fisheries Service.

End Signature

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

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

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

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

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2. In § 622.181, remove and reserve paragraph (b)(2) and add paragraph (c)(2) to read as follows:

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Prohibited and limited-harvest species.
* * * * *

(c) * * *

(2) Red snapper. Red snapper may only be harvested or possessed in or from the South Atlantic EEZ during the commercial and recreational seasons as specified in § 622.183(b)(5) and § 622.193(y). Any red snapper caught in the South Atlantic EEZ during a time other than the specified commercial or recreational seasons specified in § 622.193(y) must be released immediately with a minimum of harm. In addition, for a person on board a vessel for which a valid Federal commercial or charter vessel/headboat permit for South Atlantic snapper-grouper has been issued, the prohibition on the harvest or possession of red snapper applies in the South Atlantic, regardless of where such fish are harvested or possessed, i.e., in state or Federal waters.

Start Amendment Part

3. In § 622.183, revise paragraph (b)(5)(i) to read as follows:

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Area and seasonal closures.
* * * * *

(b) * * *

(5) * * *

(i) The commercial and recreational sectors for red snapper are closed (i.e., red snapper may not be harvested or possessed, or sold or purchased) in or from the South Atlantic EEZ, except as specified in § 622.193(y). Each year, NMFS will announce the season opening dates in the Federal Register. The commercial season will begin on the second Monday in July, unless otherwise specified. The recreational season, which consists of weekends only (Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays) begins on the second Friday in July, unless otherwise specified. NMFS will project the length of the recreational fishing season and announce the recreational fishing season end date in the Federal Register. See § 622.193(y), for establishing the end date of the commercial fishing season.

* * * * *
Start Amendment Part

4. In § 622.187, revise paragraph (b)(9) to read as follows:

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Bag and possession limits.
* * * * *

(b) * * *

(9) Red snapper—1.

* * * * *
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5. In § 622.191, add paragraph (a)(9) to read as follows:

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Commercial trip limits.
* * * * *

(a) * * *

(9) Red snapper. Until the commercial ACL specified in § 622.193(y)(1) is reached, 75 lb (34 kg), gutted weight.

* * * * *
Start Amendment Part

6. In § 622.193, revise paragraph (y) to read as follows:

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

(y) Red snapper—(1) Commercial sector. The commercial ACL for red snapper is 124,815 lb (56,615 kg), round weight. See § 622.183(b)(5) for details on the commercial fishing season. NMFS will monitor commercial landings during the season, and if commercial landings, as estimated by the SRD, reach or are projected to reach the commercial ACL, the AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to close the commercial sector for red snapper for the remainder of the year. On and after the effective date of the closure notification, all sale or purchase of red snapper is prohibited and harvest or possession of red snapper is limited to the recreational bag and possession limits and only during such time as harvest by the recreational sector is Start Printed Page 22943allowed as described in § 622.183(b)(5). This bag and possession limit and the prohibition on sale/purchase apply in the South Atlantic on board a vessel for which a valid Federal commercial or charter vessel/headboat permit for South Atlantic snapper-grouper has been issued, without regard to where such species were harvested or possessed, i.e., in state or Federal waters.

(2) Recreational sector. The recreational ACL for red snapper is 29,656 fish. The AA will file a notification with the Office of the Federal Register to announce the length of the recreational fishing season for the current fishing year. The length of the recreational fishing season for red snapper serves as the in-season accountability measure. See § 622.183(b)(5) for details on the recreational fishing season. On and after the effective date of the recreational closure notification, the bag and possession limits for red snapper are zero.

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End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 2018-10510 Filed 5-16-18; 8:45 am]

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