Gag Grouper


Mycteroperca microlepis


    Grouper, Velvet Rockfish, Small-scaled Rockfish


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



Click the icons to learn more about each criteria



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 the Gulf of Mexico. 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.

Although gag is abundant in the South Atlantic, the population has declined in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly due to a major “red tide” event (an algal bloom that releases potent neurotoxins) in 2005. The Gulf of Mexico stock is overfished (below sustainable population levels), but is no longer subject to overfishing. Managers recently implemented a rebuilding plan for the Gulf of Mexico stock. The plan includes a number of measures for the commercial and recreational gag fisheries, including annual catch limits, which will manage harvest at a level that will allow the overfished stock to rebuild to target population levels by a specified deadline. Managers have responded to overfishing in the South Atlantic, by implementing annual catch limits to prevent future overfishing.

Looking Ahead

Many species of snapper and grouper grow slowly, aren’t able to mature until 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.



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 11.

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 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. Scientists, managers, and stakeholders assess the status of these stocks through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process.



According to the latest assessment in 2006, the South Atlantic stock has been increasing since the 1990s and is at 94 percent of the target population level. This stock is not overfished, but was approaching an overfished condition according to information provided in the 2006 assessment. Management measures have been implemented to reduce fishing mortality. When the Gulf of Mexico gag stock was assessed in 2011, scientists estimated that abundance was at 41 percent of the target population level. This stock remains overfished and is under a rebuilding plan.


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. Management prohibits the use of trawl gear, fish traps, and bottom longlines (in some areas) in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to reduce bycatch, and 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. 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 or fish descenders when fish are caught showing signs of barotrauma. (When reef fish are brought quickly to the surface by hook-and-line, the gas in their swimbladders can over expand. 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 and recreational 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-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 deepwater snapper-grouper species.

Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan

  • Annual catch limit allocated between the commercial and recreational 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.

Annual Harvest

Gag is an important commercial species in the South Atlantic. Since 2000, commercial landings of gag have been fairly stable, ranging between 415,027 and 712,000 pounds whole weight per year. From 2009-2012, management limited the annual commercial catch to 352,940 pounds gutted weight (416,469 pounds whole weight) to prevent overharvest. Total landings in the South Atlantic in 2012 were 351,718 pounds gutted weight (415,027 pounds whole weight). The catch limit was reduced to 315,911 pounds gutted weight (372,775 pounds whole weight) in 2013. 

In the Gulf of Mexico, the fishery has been under an IFQ program since 2009. Total landings in the Gulf in 2012 were 619,484 pounds whole weight.



The 2012 commercial harvest of 1,034,511 pounds whole weight of gag in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was valued at more than $4.2 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–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 that species 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 mistakenly referred to as black grouper (Mycteroperca spp.). 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. Once the skin is removed from the fish, it’s hard to tell red grouper and gag apart, but gag has firmer meat when it’s fresh. The raw meat of both is white and lean. When cooked, the meat stays white, and is very firm, moist, and flaky. (Seafood Business, 2011)



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