Alabama’s inshore anglers are aware that fishing for two of the most popular species – southern flounder and spotted seatrout – has not been up to normal Gulf Coast standards in the past few years.
The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) is seeking public input on how to mitigate this downturn in the abundance of the two species. MRD recently held public meetings with commercial and recreational anglers to discuss what management measures would be supported.
“I was very appreciative of the number of people who came to the discussions about the possible changes, and that’s important,” MRD Director Scott Bannon said. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to them.”
Anglers who came to the public meetings at 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center last week heard Bannon and MRD Chief Biologist Kevin Anson present the current status of flounder and trout. MRD is considering options to help the fish stocks recover, including a reduction in bag limits, increased size limits and possible closed seasons.
“I’m kind of surprised by how many people are supportive of a reduced bag limit as a management tool,” Bannon said. “I’m very pleased with the feedback from people about what they see when they’re out fishing and what they think might help. Coupling that with what our science says, I think we’re going to be able to make some decisions that are going to be helpful for the resource but also still work with what our fishermen want in Alabama. Believe it not, one of the comments that I’ve received several times is that, even though people understand there is going to be some change, they appreciated the state’s effort to get the public’s opinion. As one person said, it shows we really do care.”
Of the two fish species, flounder is MRD’s biggest concern because of reduced harvest by both commercial and recreational anglers in recent years. The estimated harvest during the past 15 years shows a harvest of about 350,000 flounder in 2002 to about 150,000 in 2017. A significant spike in harvest occurred during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill because of a shift in angler effort from offshore waters to inshore waters.
“I think it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach both to recreational and commercial fishing to assure the stability of that fishery,” Bannon said. “These are hard decisions. On the commercial side, this affects income, but we want to sustain their income long-term.”
Bannon said about 30 commercial fishermen are targeting flounder with gillnets, while a small percentage are reporting harvests using gigs. Bannon is concerned that some giggers are skirting the reporting law.
“There is only a small number of people with commercial licenses who are reporting harvests using a gig,” he said. “All commercial harvests are required to be reported. But we think a number of people are recreationally fishing under a commercial license, and those fish aren’t getting reported. They purchase a commercial license to exceed the 10-fish bag limit.”
Bannon said the only management tool that would restrict this practice is a daily bag limit for those who hold a commercial license. Recreational anglers currently have a 10-flounder bag limit with a minimum size of 12 inches total length.
“Some people are truly commercially fishing,” he said. “They are using it to make a living. Others are just exceeding a bag limit. Gigging is a very effective fishery. The technology is helping them with better lights and better boats, like with most fisheries. We are going to work with the industry to see what’s a realistic bag limit, looking at the landing numbers. We could be looking at a combination of bag limits, size limits or a seasonal closure.”
MRD data shows that November is a month with a high commercial harvest number because flounder migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.
“Any time you have fish that have a specific spawning run, it’s beneficial to allow them to make that run, and with flounder, the females do come back inshore,” Bannon said.
Anson said Alabama is not alone in terms of a foundering flounder fishery.
“This isn’t just an Alabama problem,” Anson said. “Other states have seen reductions in flounder landings as well, both commercial and recreational. It just seems that we are ground zero as far as seeing the largest drop in landings.”
Fisheries managers use spawning potential ratio (SPR) to determine the health of a fish stock. For flounder, the target SPR to maintain the population is between 25 and 30 percent.
At the current harvest rate, if the minimum size for flounder remains at 12 inches, the population will not be able to sustain the target SPR. An increase in size also increases the number of eggs the females release during the spawn.
According to MRD data, an increase in the minimum size to 13 inches would allow 20 percent more fish to remain in the water. An increase to a minimum size of 14 inches would allow 38 percent more fish to remain in the water.
MRD’s Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores is also gearing up to spawn flounder in recently purchased tanks and equipment. Bannon said they hope to eventually release between 50,000 and 60,000 flounder fingerlings annually.
For spotted seatrout (speckled trout), a recent MRD assessment indicated recruitment of juvenile trout back into the fishery has been below traditional levels.
Bannon said a seismic shift in fishing effort has played a role in the fishing pressure on speckled trout. High fuel costs and restrictive bag limits on reef fish species caused many offshore anglers to start fishing inshore waters.
“We went from 50,000 inshore fishing trips annually in the early 90s to more than 500,000 in 2011,” he said. “That’s a ten-fold increase in fishing effort. That’s a concern. All of our habitat is accessible to fishermen. It’s a popular fish, so there’s a lot of effort focused on them, partly due to the short federal fisheries seasons.”
The annual harvest during that time increased 600 percent, and a downturn of landings in 2014 suggests the fishery is unstainable under that intense fishing pressure.
Bannon said anglers who target speckled trout, which has no commercial harvest because of its game-fish status, have indicated support for a reduction in the current 10-fish bag limit. Anglers have also indicated support for a slot limit and/or an increase in the current minimum size, which is 14 inches total length. The red drum (redfish) fishery has a slot limit of 16-26 inches with an allowance of one oversized fish.
“If we do go to a slot limit on trout, there will be an allowance for one oversized fish,” he said. “Most anglers who target these fish understand there are some concerns and agree that if we act responsibly now we will be in better shape. The goal is for anglers to catch larger fish more consistently.”
Anson said increases in size limits that MRD is considering include a bump in the minimum length to 15 inches, which would allow more than 227,000 trout to be returned to the water annually. An increase to a 16-inch minimum size would mean more than 400,000 could be returned to the water each year.
MRD will hold a meeting with the charter-for-hire operators on March 27. Bannon said, depending on feedback from the public, MRD may decide to hold another meeting before finalizing its management proposals.
Bannon said MRD welcomes comments on the proposed changes to the regulations on flounder and trout. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com by April 13 to ensure the input will be considered before the next Conservation Advisory Board meeting, scheduled May 4 at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel.
“After we complete the meetings and compile the public input, the staff will have discussions, followed by discussions with the Commissioner (Chris Blankenship),” Bannon said. “Then we will develop a proposal for the Conservation Advisory Board on May 4.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.