Last week’s winter storm that hit North Carolina added more victims on Monday, as a widespread cold-stun kill of speckled trout caused the executive director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to suspend all commercial and recreational harvest of through June 15. Dr. Louis Daniel issued a proclamation on Monday at noon that effectively closes the fishery as of 12:01 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 5. 

Many speckled trout in shallow, coastal creeks and succumbed to the cold of the ice and snow and the runoff. The closure covers coastal, joint and inland waters. Seafood dealers have until Feb. 12 to move any unfrozen speckled trout.

Fishermen and fishery managers remained hopeful through last Friday that the specks had dodged their third magnum-sized cold-weather bullet of the year, but with the warming and thawing late Friday and Saturday, the evidence of a cold-stun kill – the first since Jan. 2011 – became plainly evident. As more dead trout were discovered and reported over the weekend, Daniel prepared to issue the proclamation that closes speckled trout fishing statewide until the surviving fish have sufficient time to spawn in the spring. 

“We began the week hopeful that the cold from the arctic vortex of two weeks ago and the hard freeze of late last week had been enough to move the trout out into deeper water where they can weather the cold better,” Daniel said. “Since we had seen so few problems and none of any real consequence from those cold snaps, we were hoping the trout had moved and would fare well. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

“The first reports weren’t all that bad,” Daniel said. “We knew it was a lot to hope for, but we were hoping anyway. A few more reports came in on Thursday, but it still wasn’t too bad. Friday morning, the roads began clearing, and we had NCDMF staff, Marine Patrol, (N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission) staff and officers and loads of volunteers out searching and following up on reports from fishermen. We made it through the day on Friday without things getting bad enough to need a closure, but that changed on Saturday.

“Roads and waterways were wide open Saturday, and fishermen were able to reach their favorite fishing spots,” Daniel said. “This time the reports were bad. There were stuns and kills from just below Wilmington to the creeks and rivers on the Albemarle Sound. We knew the damage to the stock was reaching the catastrophic level adopted into the Spotted Seatrout Fishery Management Plan and I prepared my staff to be ready to implement the proclamation to close the season as quickly as we could Monday morning.”

Chip Collier, NCDMF’s biologist for speckled trout, said he was concerned as soon as he heard the weather forecast. Cold and freezing temperatures are one thing, but when you add ice and snow it has potential to be much worse – and this lived threat up to that potential. In addition to the ice and snow, the runoff is colder than the water in the creeks and goes right to the bottom, which is where the trout are trying to hide and weather the cold. 

Collier said no one had a good explanation why the trout hadn’t moved deeper after the two previous severe cold events, and that the results were bad. Collier confirmed stuns and kills had occurred from the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County to the Alligator and Scuppernong Rivers in Terrell, Hyde and Dare counties.

The most-severe trout kill was in the Pungo River and its tributary creeks near Belhaven and along the border between Beaufort and Hyde counties. Several fishermen said there were floating fish and diving birds everywhere. DMF also verified trout stuns and kills in several coastal rivers, bays and creeks, including the Pamlico, Alligator, Pungo, Scuppernong, Trent, Neuse, White Oak and Cape Fear rivers; Chocowinity, Blounts and Chadwick bays; and Slades, Bath, Cahoogue, Hancock and Spooners creeks. 

Daniel said he issued the closure proclamation to be in compliance with the Spotted Seatrout Fishery Management Plan (FMP). The closure after a severe stun/kill event is included in the Spotted Seatrout FMP to allow all surviving trout an opportunity to spawn in the spring before the season reopens. 

The Spotted Seatrout FMP is being considered for revision. It is scheduled for discussion at the Feb. 19-21 meeting of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission in Morehead City. If the Spotted Seatrout FMP is modified during that meeting, this proclamation could be overridden and the season reopened.