By David Rainer
AL Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
The length and bag limits of two of Alabama’s most popular inshore fish species will likely change soon after proposals by the Alabama Marine Resources Division were approved last weekend by the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board.
Under the new regulations, spotted seatrout (speckled trout) and southern flounder will have reduced bag limits to deal with concerns that the species are not able to sustain healthy populations.
Speckled trout will go to a slot limit of 15 to 22 inches (total length, TL) with one fish allowed over 22 inches (TL). The previous length limit was 14 inches. The regulation is similar to that for redfish, which has a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches with one fish allowed over 26 inches. The bag limit for speckled trout will also be reduced from 10 fish to six fish.
The flounder population, which appears to be in worse condition than trout, will move from a 10-fish bag limit to five fish, and the minimum size will be increased from 12 inches to 14 inches (TL).
Kevin Anson, Marine Resources’ Chief Marine Biologist, said a series of public meetings were held to enlist input from the public about possible changes to the trout and flounder regulations.
“We had some assessments that were conducted independently through the University of South Alabama, and the report indicated that both species are in decline,” Anson said. “The spotted seatrout assessment has shown that in the last five to seven years that the breeding stock is not at a sustainable level. The stock is not in critical decline, but we need to make some changes now to ensure it does not get there.
“Southern flounder is under a little more critical designation, according to the assessment results. We recommend the 14-inch minimum size. About 25% of the females will be mature enough to spawn at 12 inches. Just under 50% will be mature between 14 and 15 inches.”
The regulations approved by the Board for commercial harvest of flounder will add a daily trip limit of 30 fish per vessel. Speckled trout is designated as a game fish and no commercial harvest is allowed.
Anson said there has been a significant increase in commercial fishing license sales since about the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and those license numbers remain relatively high. Those licenses are in addition to the commercial gill net license holders that also target flounder commercially.
“So, we are trying to constrain some of that harvest,” he said. “We felt that (30-fish trip limit) in addition to the reduction in the recreational bag limit would help curb some of that harvest.”
Marine Resources will also implement a closure of both commercial and recreational flounder fishing annually for the month of November during the flounder’s spawning run.
Anson also gave the Board an update on Marine Resources’ effort to spawn flounder at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores.
“We started collecting brood stock of southern flounder last year,” Anson said. “We will be trying to spawn those fish this coming winter, when they normally spawn in the wild. Researchers have found this species of fish takes a long time to acclimate to be able to spawn in a captive situation.”
If the flounder spawning is successful, Anson said Marine Resources plans to release between 50,000 and 60,000 juvenile flounder annually.
The Board also approved a request from Marine Resources to implement a Gulf reef fish endorsement to distinguish those anglers who fish for red snapper and other reef fish from saltwater anglers who fish for other species.
The endorsement, which would go into effect for the 2019-2020 license year, would cost $10 for individual anglers. Charter boat fees would range from $150-$250, and commercial vessels would be assessed at $200 per vessel.
“This will give us better accounting of who is actually going offshore and taking part in the reef fish harvest,” Anson said. “Currently, we just have a saltwater license that has no designation as to what type of fishing that person will do with that license. We can contact those who purchase the endorsement and ask questions about their fishing behavior.”
Anson said the money raised from the endorsement would be used to replace research funding from federal sources and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration funds that will no longer be available after this year. The funds from the reef fish endorsement can only be used for research and management of reef fish.
“We have been funding some fishery-independent sampling in our offshore reef zones since 2011, utilizing a variety of sampling gear, including side-scan sonar, ROV (remotely operated vessel), vertical line and bottom longline sampling. That has been conducted through Dr. Sean Powers at the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab. That has all been funded through federal sources.
“The reef fish endorsement will allow us to continue to support that research, which is providing information directly into the federal stock assessment, which is used to determine the Gulf-wide quota for the red snapper fishery.
“This work also has allowed Alabama to conduct our own population estimate for red snapper of the coast off of the coast of Alabama. This information is critical for state management of the reef fish fishery.”
ChrisBlankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, apprised the Board of the recent approval of Amendment 50 by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that will allow state management of the red snapper fishery in 2020 and beyond.
“We’re hoping the amendment that Commissioner Blankenship mentioned will provide some additional opportunities for the states to gain more access and ways to manage the fisheries off those states,” Anson said. “This (endorsement-funded research) would be an integral part of that program.”
Commissioner Blankenship also announced a significant rating achieved by the blue crab industry in Alabama. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program rates most varieties of seafood consumed in the U.S. The Alabama blue crab received a “good alternatives” rating, which puts it in the same category as Gulf wild shrimp, wild sea scallops and yellowfin tuna.
“Because of the very good management of the crab fishery here, Alabama is going to be the only state in the Gulf and Atlantic whose blue crab trap fishery is going to be considered a good alternative by Monterey Bay,” Commissioner Blankenship said.
“I would like to commend the Marine Resources Division for the regulations that were put in place several years ago. The work to allow sustainable harvest has been recognized nationally, and this gives the crab industry in Alabama a leg up on the competition around the country.”
In hunting news, Commissioner Blankenship updated the Board on the status of Senate Bill 66, which would allow the taking of white-tailed deer and feral hogs by means of bait if that person purchases a baiting privilege license. That bill passed both the House and Senate and has been signed by Governor Kay Ivey.
Also, the Board recommended a regulation change in dog deer hunting that would allow Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Conservation Enforcement Officers to ticket individual owners of dogs that venture onto neighboring property.
The recommended regulation states that it shall be unlawful for any person who has received a written warning to allow a dog, for the purpose of deer hunting, to enter onto or across or remain on the property of another without written permission.
Matt Weathers, WFF’s Chief Enforcement Officer said this encroachment regulation does not affect dogs used to hunt other species, like raccoon, squirrel or rabbit.
“This would be strictly a dog deer hunting regulation,” Weathers said. “It is fairly simple. If a landowner or person who has land leased calls us about problems with a dog deer hunting club or dogs showing up on their property, our officer instructs the person who made the call to catch the dog or document in some way who the dog belongs to. The dog has to be collared by regulation. When that happens, our officer comes out and sees if it is a valid complaint.
“If it is provable that this occurred, our officer contacts the dog’s owner. He is given a written warning and told to put in place some practice to keep the dog off this person’s property.
“If it happens again, it’s the officer’s discretion to issue the dog’s owner a ticket for violating that regulation.”
Weathers said this encroachment regulation is an alternative to putting those clubs in permit counties on probation or taking away land where dog deer hunting is allowed.
“This allows our officers to be very specific to those who are generating the bulk of the complaints, which is a small fraction of the overall dog deer hunters,” Weather said.
In addition to the encroachment regulation, the Board placed Talladega and Clay counties on the permit system for dog deer hunting. The Board also passed two regulations that will restrict the movement of live bait fish between water bodies and restrict the possession of silver, bighead and largescale silver carp.
All regulation changes approved by the Board will go through the Administrative Procedures Act process before they go into effect.
Pictured: Under regulations expected to go into effect August 1, the spotted seatrout will move to a slot limit of 15 to 22 inches (TL) with an allowance for one seatrout larger than 22 inches in the daily bag, which was reduced to six fish. The regulation is similar to that for redfish, which has a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches with one fish allowed over 26 inches. The bag limit for speckled trout will also be reduced from 10 fish to six fish. Senate Bill 66 would allow the taking of white-tailed deer and feral hogs by means of bait if that person purchases a baiting privilege license.