Managing the mighty redfish

The red drum is probably the most-sought saltwater gamefish from North Carolina to Texas and many states, including South Carolina, have hatcheries to rear and release redfish.

The red drum, red fish, or spot-tailed bass is the most-targeted coastal sport fish from North Carolina around the Florida peninsula to the Texas coast. But the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the South Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries have said the red-drum fishery along the lower Atlantic and Gulf States is over fished, either commercially and/or recreationally.

Without the help of anglers, conservation groups, and legislation, populations of red drum will continue to suffer. Red-drum management plans in the south Atlantic states must incorporate similar, if not parallel, management plans.

Red-drum stocks have been overfished for years. The country’s taste for blackened redfish fueled the commercial over-harvest in the South.

The two major commercial harvesters of red drum historically have been North Carolina and Florida. However, Florida prohibited commercial harvest of red drum in 1989; North Carolina allows a limited commercial harvest of red drum with a few exceptions. The exceptions include red drum larger than 27 inches, and commercial fisherman are allowed a 50-pound daily trip quota with a 250,000-pound annual statewide quota. Small-mesh gill nets are required to be attended to prevent regulatory discard; they can only be used May 1-Oct. 31.

As for Georgia, that state doesn’t have a substantial commercial fishery for red drum because of gear restrictions and a limited quota. Gill nets targeting red drum have been prohibited since the 1950s in Georgia. South Carolina prohibits the sale of red drum, and gill nets can’t be used to take red drum.

Habitat destruction, including spawning and nursery grounds, also has played a major role. Sufficient habitat is absolutely necessary for the red drum’s survival as the state’s most-popular saltwater sport fish.

Coastal regions in the south Atlantic states are considered the fastest-developing areas in the United States. Adequate habitat management, including preservation and enhancement will aid in recovering the fishery. However, public awareness may be just as important to the recovery of red drum.

Currently, regulations from state to state are a little different, but all of theses states are targeting the juvenile stock from the smaller slot range in Georgia (14 to 23 inches) to the larger slot in North Carolina (18 to 27 inches).

The major difference occurs in creels. Georgia anglers may keep five fish while North Carolinians may retain only one.

We are definitely doing the resource justice by only harvesting the juvenile age group. However, the number we are harvesting may be just as important, if not more important.

I believe partial-year moratoriums might be a good idea. Partial-year season closures would allow more fish to escape to reach sexual maturity.

Since red drum can reach sexual maturity in such a short time, harvest moratoriums could boost an entire age group into sexual maturity.

Juvenile redfish (to 4 years of age) live in the bays or back in the creeks of our estuaries. They will generally grow to a length of 27 or 30 inches and before they become sexual mature.

At this point, adult red drum will migrate toward larger bays and into the ocean. They also may move north during the summer and travel back to the south during the fall to spawn, often near their birth grounds.

That’s why it’s so important to have an interstate management approach. We can’t contain these fish inside our waters. Neighboring states should follow the same management requirements.

We may need to designate marine reserves throughout the coastal region. Marine reserves have been proven to enhance the populations of marine life within the reserves and adjacent waters. Merritt Island, located in the Florida’s Atlantic shoreline, is a great example. In the 1960’s, the U.S. government closed off a large sector of estuary near Cape Canaveral for security measures and converted it into a wildlife refuge and marine reserve.

The results have been phenomenal and educational. Through tagging research, red drum and other marine species have flourished within and adjacent to the reserve.

Migratory species are also benefited from these reserves. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia also could benefit from these marine reserves.

As most anglers are well aware, fisheries management isn’t free. South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas require recreational saltwater fishing licenses. Their monies are providing enhancement programs that include stocking programs, inshore artificial reef programs, and other adaptive resource programs.

North Carolina has approved a saltwater recreational fishing that will go into effect in 2007. The national and local chapters of the Coastal Conservation Association have provided funding, support and services to the red drum restoration and management of the south Atlantic States.

In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service utilizes funds from the Congress’s SportFish Restoration Act and other governmental entities have also provided additional funding.

Stocking has proved to be successful in South Carolina, Florida, and Texas.

Since 2002, South Carolna has released millions of genetically-identifiable juvenile red fish across its coastal estuaries. More than 2.6-million juvenile red drum were released during 2004 into S.C.’s estuaries.

Captured marked fish since the first release in 2002 have showed remarkable growth and dispersal. In two years, the released fish have grown from 2 inches to 23 inches.

Texas has released more than 115 million redfish over the last 20 years and they have reported great successes. Currently, Georgia is contemplating initiation of a stocking program.

Stocking programs have shown to be beneficial and we should continue to utilize this management technique throughout their range where needed.

States need to come together to manage migratory saltwater species as a group. They can learn from one other through research and experimental management tools.

As stewards of the resource, it should be our responsibility to adapt to new innovations in science and to grasp the techniques that work to sustain the resource for our children.

Hopefully the ever-popular red drum will remain the most sought marine game fish species in the Southeast.

About Jeff Burleson 1309 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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