Fishing Impacts
Gray's Reef

fish with coral reef
Amberjack are an important species for recreational fishing. Credit: Greg McFall, NOAA

Why is it a concern?

According to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, as of December 2014, key species integral to the fish communities of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (red snapper, gag, red grouper and black sea bass) are overfished in the southeastern US. Other species of interest: gray triggerfish, sheepshead and greater amberjack are not currently considered overfished although they are targeted by fishers in the region.  Experts believe that historical overfishing has affected ecosystem conditions throughout the region, including at Gray’s Reef.

Based on socioeconomic studies from Georgia coastal counties and sanctuary surveys of visitor use, recreational fishing activities have increased significantly at Gray’s Reef in the past 20 years. Recreational fishers are limited to rod and reel as spearfishing has been prohibited since 2009. Sanctuary use is expected to rise as population increases along the Georgia coast and the popularity of recreational fishing and diving grows. Increases in use, coupled with declines in fish populations and degradation of coastal habitats could result in adverse impacts on fish populations and sanctuary resources. The structurally complex ledges provide essential fish habitat and are often targeted by fishermen, making the fish that are concentrated there as well as the habitat itself particularly vulnerable to fishing activities.

Due to progressive management, one-third of the sanctuary was designated as a Research Area closed to fishing and diving in 2011.  The Research Area, coupled with proximity to commercial and recreational fishing areas make GRNMS a prominent location to investigate fishing impacts to marine resources. There are multiple projects investigating fishing impacts in GRNMS, some of which take advantage of the Research Area.  The sanctuary is also further evaluating the impact the RA has on fish populations throughout the sanctuary. Detections from animals tagged outside the sanctuary (by researchers from other agencies and institutions) is helping to understand the movement of certain species within and outside sanctuary boundaries. Other technologies used to assess fish movement and densities are fishery acoustics and underwater gliders. All of this work is completed through partnerships with academic institutions, state agencies, and NOAA scientists.

Overview of Research

Science Needs and Questions

  • What impacts does the removal of targeted species have on fish and benthic communities?
  • What are the regional ecological consequences of recruitment and spillover associated with the Research Area? The Sanctuary?
  • Does fishing affect fish size distribution and movement?
  • What are the sources of fish and invertebrate recruits to the RA and to the sanctuary as a whole?
  • What commercially, recreationally and ecologically (e.g., food chain) important fish species are known to spawn inside the Sanctuary?
  • What habitat types are used for spawning activities?
  • What are the important habitats for larvae and juveniles?

Education and Outreach Material

Acoustic Tagging Activities at the elementary, middle and high school level

Sustainable Seafood Delight


Ehler, R. and V.R. Leeworthy. May 2002. A Socioeconomic Overview of Georgia’s Marine

Related Industries and Activities; NOAA, U.S. Department of Commerce.
National Marine Sanctuary Program. 2006. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Final

Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Sanctuary Program, Silver Spring, MD. 260 pp.

Kendall, M.S., L.J. Bauer and C.F.G. Jeffrey. 2007. Characterization of the benthos, marine

debris and bottom fish at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Prepared by National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Biogeography Team in cooperation with the National

Marine Sanctuary Program. Silver Spring, MD. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS
50. 82 pp. + Appendices.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2008. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Condition

Report 2008. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 42 pp.
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2010. Gray’s Reef Science Needs, Fish Spawning. U.S.

Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD, Accessed: 7/21/2014 

Kendall, Matthew S., Laurie J. Bauer, and Christopher FG Jeffrey. "Influence of benthic features and fishing pressure on size and distribution of three exploited reef fishes from the southeastern United States." Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 137.4 (2008): 1134-1146.

Auster, Peter J., et al. "Behavior of prey links midwater and demersal piscivorous reef fishes." Neotropical Ichthyology 7.1 (2009): 109-112.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2008. Annual Report to Congress on the Status of U.S. Fisheries-2007. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, Natl., Mar. Fish. Serv., Silver Spring, MD. 23 pp.