Better to act now than be sorry later

Thriving redfish need anglers' help to avoid an endangered future.

Published October 29, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - A week doesn't go by that I don't receive a photo of some grinning angler holding a large red drum.

The dark days of the 1980s are behind us. Stocks seem to be in good shape, thanks to sound management efforts and the conservation ethics of most sportsmen.

Red drum, or redfish as this species is commonly called, can be found from Massachusetts to Key West and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. These tackle busters can live for 40 years, but inshore anglers in Florida seldom see the big breeders.

The regulations - an 18- to 27-inch slot limit and one fish per person bag limit - have been in effect since 1989. State officials first tried to regulate this popular inshore species four years earlier, but they discovered that more stringent measures were needed.

In November 1986, the Marine Fisheries Commission issued the first emergency closure for redfish that lasted until February 1987, when a statewide slot limit of 18 to 32 inches went into effect along with a closed season during March and April.

A second emergency closure began in May 1987 and lasted through October when officials opened the season again for two months with an 18- to 27-inch slot limit, one fish per person bag limit recreational and a five fish per person (commercial) bag limit. That didn't work either.

So anglers sat through a third closure, this one from January through December 1988. The next year, state officials began enforcing the current size and bag limit along with a closed season of March through May.

But the most important management measure was the elimination of the commercial harvest, a battle fought and won by the Florida Conservation Association, the forerunner of today's Coastal Conservation Association.

By 1996, the management measures appeared so successful that state officials eliminated the closed season.

Biologists had set a goal of 30 percent "escapement," which in essence means the number of fish that survive to reproduce relative to the number that would have survived to that same age if there was no fishing pressure.

Under the current management plan, 32 percent of the fish on the gulf coast live to age 4 (when they can start producing) and 34 percent survive on the Atlantic side.

Sounds good? Not really. If the current trend continues, escapement will probably fall below 30 percent by 2008. That's because every day the state's population rises. The new residents want to boat, paddle and fish.

So, what are we to do? Sit back as the number of anglers continues to rise and the number of redfish reaching sexual maturity continues to drop?

The state has several options. The first is to maintain the status quo, keep the current regulations and wait for the next stock assessment due in 2009. But if this turns out to be the wrong decision, fishery managers might be forced to take drastic action, i.e., emergency closures.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission could tinker with the size limit - 19 to 27 inches, 20 to 27 inches, 19 to 26 inches or 20 to 26 inches.

Another option is another closed season, either September-October or March-April.

In September, state officials met with representatives of the CCA, the Florida Guides Association and various tournament directors. The CCA suggested raising the escapement threshold to 40 percent. This could be reached by dropping the upper end of the size limit to 26 inches.

But before state officials make any decisions, fishery managers want to hear from anglers. Bay area anglers can discuss the management alternatives from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, 100 Eighth Ave. SE, Karen A. Steidinger Auditorium, Room 1005, St. Petersburg.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.