Gag Grouper


Mycteroperca microlepis


    Grouper, Velvet Rockfish, Small-scaled Rockfish


    U.S. wild-caught from North Carolina to Texas



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Gag in its reef habitat.

Gag in its reef habitat.


Gag is one of the most abundant groupers in the Southeast and is harvested in U.S. waters from North Carolina to Texas. Most of our commercial harvest comes from the west coast of Florida, with smaller amounts from North and South Carolina and Florida’s east coast.

The gag population in the Gulf of Mexico declined for several years beginning in 2005, possibly due to a major “red tide” event (an algal bloom that releases potent neurotoxins). Managers implemented a number of measures for the commercial and recreational gag fisheries to rebuild the stock. These measure were successful, and the stock was declared rebuilt in 2014.

Gag is abundant in the South Atlantic, but was previously subject to overfishing. Managers responded by extending the spawning season closure and implementing annual catch limits to prevent future overfishing. These measures have been successful, and the South Atlantic stock is no longer subject to overfishing.

Looking Ahead

Many species of snapper and grouper grow slowly, do not mature until relatively late in life, and live a long time. These species take longer to reproduce and replenish their population and often take years to fully recover from overfishing. Many groupers, including gag, are protogynous hermaphrodites, changing from females to males when they reach a certain age and size. They also spawn together in large groups, making them easy to catch in large numbers and increasing the chance that large males will be selectively removed from an aggregation. Managers consider these traits when developing regulations for the fishery – for example, the shallow water grouper fishery is closed during their spawning season to protect these vulnerable fish while they reproduce, and several areas known to contain male gag that are able to reproduce have been closed to fishing.



Gag is found in the western Atlantic, primarily from North Carolina to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Juveniles are found as far north as Massachusetts. Young gag live in estuaries in “structured” habitats (seagrass beds, oyster reefs, shipwrecks, etc.). Adults live offshore and prefer hard bottom habitat including reefs and wrecks, coral and live bottom, and depressions and ledges.



Gag grow slowly, can reach more than 3 feet in length, and weigh up to 50 pounds. They can live as long as 30 years. Gag are "protogynous hermaphrodites" – they begin life as females and sexually mature, usually around age 4. As they grow older, they change to males, around age 8.

Gag spawn from mid-January to early May in the South Atlantic and from late January to mid-April in the Gulf of Mexico. They spawn in groups along the continental shelf. Females spawn multiple times per season. They release between 60,000 and 1.7 million eggs each time they spawn.  

Gag eat a variety of fish, crabs, shrimp, and squid. Adult gag and large fish prey on juvenile gag. Sharks and other large fish prey on adult gag.



Gag have long, compressed bodies. Their coloring varies with the size of the fish. Large gag are dark brownish-gray above and paler below, with traces of dark wavy markings on the sides. Smaller fish are much lighter and have dark brown or charcoal kiss-like marks along their sides. Gag’s scientific species name, microlepis, is derived from the Greek words "micro" for small and "lepis" meaning scale, in reference to the small scales of this fish.

Gag are often confused with black grouper; however, the gag’s tail and anal fins have white edges, whereas black grouper do not.



There are two stocks of gag, one in the South Atlantic and one in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists from NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center monitor the abundance of these populations with input from scientists, managers, and stakeholders through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process.



According to the latest assessments in 2014, the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks are not overfished or subject to overfishing. The South Atlantic population declined from the early-1970s to the mid-1980s and has since been relatively stable. Based on a previous stock assessment in 2006, the South Atlantic stock was found to be subject to overfishing but management measures were implemented that successfully reduced fishing mortality. The Gulf of Mexico gag population declined for several years beginning in 2005, possibly due to a major “red tide” event (an algal bloom that releases potent neurotoxins). Managers implemented a number of measures for the commercial and recreational gag fisheries to rebuild the stock. These management measures were successful and the stock was declared rebuilt in 2014.





Harvesting Gag Grouper

Commercial fishermen mainly use vertical hook-and-line gear to harvest gag, and some also use longlines and spears. Sea turtles and other reef fishes, such as snappers and groupers, can be incidentally caught while fishing for gag. To reduce bycatch, management prohibits the use of trawl gear, fish traps, and bottom longlines in some areas of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Several areas are also closed to all fishing to protect snappers and groupers. In certain areas of the South Atlantic and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen are required to use circle hooks to improve the chance of survival of any unintentionally caught fish and to reduce turtle hookings. Commercial and charterboat/headboat reef fish fishermen must use appropriate release gear and follow handling protocols to increase the chance of survival for any incidentally caught sea turtles. Fishermen are encouraged to use venting tools disclaimer or fish descenders disclaimer when fish are caught showing signs of barotrauma. Barotrauma occurs when reef fish are quickly brought to the surface by hook-and-line and the gas in their swimbladder over expands. Venting tools disclaimer help deflate the expanded abdominal cavity, preventing serious injury to the fish and making it easier for them to return to deep water.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries, and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils

Current management:
Fishery Management Plan for the Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic Region

  • Annual catch limit allocated between the commercial (51 percent) and recreational (49 percent) fisheries.
  • A minimum size limit to prevent harvest of immature gag.
  • A number of gear requirements and restrictions help reduce bycatch and protect habitat.
  • Both the commercial and recreational fishing seasons are closed from January through April to protect all shallow water grouper during their spawning season.
  • Commercial fishermen must have a permit to fish, land, or sell snapper and grouper species. Managers limit the number of available permits to control the number of fishermen harvesting these species.
  • Eight marine protected areas closed to fishing for and possession of snapper and grouper to protect a portion of the population and habitat of long-lived deep water species.
  • For more information on current management, see the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s gag regulations page or the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office’s South Atlantic snapper-grouper page.

Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan

  • Annual catch limit allocated between the commercial (39 percent) and recreational (61 percent) fisheries.
  • An individual fishing quota (IFQ or catch shares) program allocates the commercial quota among shareholders. Fishermen may harvest their individual allocation whenever they choose and must report how much they harvest through a strict reporting program.
  • Restrictions on the type of gear fishermen may use and where they can fish to reduce bycatch and protect spawning groups.
  • Minimum size limit to protect immature gag.
  • Area closures for both commercial and recreational fisheries to protect spawning groupers.
  • For more information on current management, see the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office’s Gulf of Mexico reef fish page.

Annual Harvest

Gag is an important commercial species in the South Atlantic. Since 2000, commercial landings of gag have been fairly stable, ranging between 419,000 and 712,000 pounds per year. Total landings in the South Atlantic in 2013 were 423,000 pounds.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the fishery has been managed under an IFQ program since 2009. Total landings in the Gulf in 2013 were 685,446 pounds.



The 2013 commercial harvest of 1,109,000 pounds of gag in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was valued at more than $4.7 million.



Gag makes up a large part of the recreational harvest in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. In the South Atlantic, recreational fishermen are limited to one gag per day. Gag must be above a minimum size to be landed. The recreational fishery is closed with the commercial fishery during the spawning season (January through April). A portion of the annual catch limit (49 percent) is allocated to the recreational fishery. If managers project the recreational catch limit will be reached, the recreational fishery is closed (if gag is overfished) or the next year’s limit is simply reduced (if gag is not overfished).

In the Gulf of Mexico, recreational fishermen are limited to two gag per person per day and may only fish during the established fishing season. Gag must be above a minimum size to be landed. The recreational fishery is allotted 61 percent of the annual catch limit. If the limit is exceeded or projected to be exceeded during the fishing year, fishing for gag will be prohibited for the remainder of the year. Also, if the limit is exceeded the amount of the overage is deducted from the following season.



Groupers and sea basses belong to the Serranidae family, one of the largest and most widely distributed families of fish. Red grouper is the most well-known grouper in the market, but gag is popular as well. Gag is sometimes mistaken for a similar looking fish, the black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci). The two species look similar and, to add to the confusion, gag has traditionally been called black grouper in some areas.

Grouper has a mild but distinct flavor, somewhere between bass and halibut. The raw meat of grouper is white and lean. When cooked, the meat stays white, and is very firm, moist, and flaky.



Year-round in the Gulf of Mexico. There is a January through April seasonal closure in the South Atlantic, and commercial closures can occur when the annual catch limit is reached.



Grouper is low in saturated fat. It is also a good source of vitamins B6 and B12, phosphorus, and potassium, and a very good source of protein and selenium.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 92
Protein 19.38 g
Fat, total 1.02 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.233 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 37 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 53 mg

Gag Grouper of Nutrition