Thursday, December 08, 2022

Latest redfish report calls for stricter regulations

Louisiana's spawning population of red drum is on the decline.  And while the primary reasons are not entirely to blame on angler harvest, it's anglers who will have to make the sacrifice to bring the stocks back to the conservation standard.

At last Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (LWFC), LDWF marine fisheries biologist Jason Adriance gave the most recent assessment on red drum stocks in the state.  The report summarized that, while spawning stocks of redfish are still above the conservation standard, the number has been declining since 2005 as fewer redfish escape to spawning size.  And unless management changes are initiated soon, we could see a situation where the fishery is unsustainable.

Red drum are unique in that the vast majority of harvest are juvenile fish.  These immature fish are typically under 4 to 5 years of age, under 27 inches in length, and under 10 pounds in weight.  When a redfish reaches 4 to 5 years of age, it usually migrates to nearshore or offshore waters to join the spawning population.  To protect these spawning stocks, recreational harvest of mature redfish in federal waters is not allowed and severely limited in state waters.  Current regulations for Louisiana are 5 fish per day, 16 to 27 inches only, with one exception over 27 inches.

By far, redfish are the most popular species among saltwater fly fishermen.  Louisiana has been described in numerous publications as the “Redfish Capitol of the World” and supports at least a few dozen flyfishing charter services that put clients on fish in shallow water for a sightcasting experience found only in a few places (mainly Texas and South Carolina). 

For veteran redfish anglers, the assessment came as no surprise.  There’s been loads of anecdotal evidence to support that fishing for reds “ain’t what it used to be”.   Coming just months after an assessment on spotted seatrout (specks) that indicated management changes were needed for that species as well.

Among the reasons given for redfish decline were much the same as for speckled trout decline. Those include:  loss of habitat (especially diverse habitat), decline of available forage (yep, that menhaden issue again), and increased fishing pressure.  Regarding the latter, it should be noted that the current regulations ( 5 fish per day, 16 to 27 inches only, with one exception over 27 inches)  were established 34 years ago in 1988.  The numbers of saltwater anglers in the state, the amount of fishing effort, and the expertise and technology to improve fishing success have all increased dramatically since then.

Management thresholds for red drum have been established by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council  (GMFMC).   For Louisiana, the conservation standard is a 20 percent spawning potential ratio, based on a 30 percent escapement rate.  While currently we have a 40 percent SPR, the escapement rate estimate is 20 percent.  And because there is a time lag between escapement and recruitment, this means we’ll likely see a further decline in fishing for a few years until any restrictive measures kick in.

Adriance and his team also provided the Commission with numerous scenarios for management changes to get red drum back above the conservation standards.  These came in the form of tables and graphs with different harvest numbers, slot sizes, and retaining or removing the one-exception over the maximum slot size.

To review the management scenarios on the LDWF website, CLICK HERE

There are two proposals that are gaining momentum, both of which would bring the escapement rate to about 40 percent - above the conservation standard.  Both would increase the minimum slot size limit from 16 to 18 inches, retain the maximum slot size at 27 inches, and decrease the daily creel limit from 5 fish to 3 fish.  The first proposal would eliminate the "one fish over 27 inches per day" exception now in place, and would not allow ANY possession of red drum over 27 inches at any time.  The second proposal would give every saltwater license holder two (2) annual tags to keep a redfish over 27 inches. 

The "2 Tag Annual" proposal mirrors what Texas does.  Texas allows anglers to annually keep just 2 redfish over the maximum slot size.  I spoke to Jason Adriance and later to a biologist at TPWD about what impact this would have.  Jason said they would need to do an estimation model to verify, but the TPWD biologist stated the impact for them is "very minimal" and suggested at most it might drop the escapement rate by 2 percent.

Meanwhile, CCA Louisiana and the Fly Fishers International (FFI) Gulf Coast Council (GCC) are  having separate discussions about proposals to be brought to the LWF Commission.  It's almost a certainty that each organization will propose a plan that brings escapement back to at least 30 percent, if not higher. 

Scenario A: Increase escapement going to
18″ min slot and eliminating one over max

Scenario B: Increase escapement going to
18″ min slot and keeping one over max