Speckled trout populations have reached their lowest level ever recorded in Louisiana. (Canva image)
Among the most popular fish for anglers and seafood lovers in Louisiana, the speckled trout has reached its lowest population levels ever recorded, according to experts who monitor their numbers. But state lawmakers rejected a proposal Wednesday to protect the species with tightened recreational fishing regulations.
Officials from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) presented data to a joint meeting of the Senate and House Natural Resources committees showing the state’s speckled trout stock has fallen 57% below its mean level.
Spotted seatrout, known colloquially as speckled trout or simply “specks,” are a species of drum that live in saltwater coastal areas, marsh waters and brackish estuaries. Its aggressive strikes and excellent taste make it one of the most sought after species among anglers, chefs and seafood connoisseurs in Louisiana.
State fishing regulations set catch and size limits for different species of fish. Currently, recreational anglers are limited to catching 25 specks per day that must be at least 12 inches long — the loosest limits of any state.
LDWF’s proposal would reduce the creel limit from 25 to 15 fish and increase the size limit to 13.5 inches, but the joint legislative committee unanimously rejected the proposal Wednesday under pressure from recreational fishing lobbyists.
Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he received calls from recreational anglers opposed to the rule changes.
“I would hope that we could look for some other measures that are proactive besides just cutting back on the recreational fishing,” Allain said.
Most specks, by far, caught by recreational anglers
Specks are caught in all five Gulf of Mexico states and along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but the majority are taken recreationally from Louisiana waters. The commercial market is inconsequential, state officials said. Commercial fishers cannot harvest speckled trout below 14 inches, and they must land the fish with a rod and reel; more efficient gill nets are not allowed.
LDWF officials said recreational fishing accounts for more than 99% of the entire speckled trout harvest in Louisiana.
However, an entire commercial industry has grown around what the state calls recreational fishing. Some boat owners in Louisiana have become licensed charter captains who make a full-time living charging a fee to take people out on what are often expensive boats outfitted with high-tech gear. Some charter companies have fleets of multiple boats with crews and deckhands that locate the fish, bait the hooks and take care of most of the work that comes with fishing. It’s not uncommon for a charter group of four anglers to catch 100 speckled trout in a single morning.
Wildlife and Fisheries conducted two assessments that measured the speckled trout populations in state waters over multiple years and found they have been declining steadily since 2009, mostly from overfishing and habitat loss, according to LDWF fisheries biologist Jason Adriance.
“We’re at the lowest point it’s ever been,” Adriance told lawmakers. “The stock is overfished and undergoing overfishing.”
Multiple surveys find depleted stock
LDWF assessments found 2.7 million pounds worth of female specks in the spawning stock as of 2020, compared with the mean estimate of 6.2 million pounds from 1982 to 2009 — a 57% drop.
The state’s current creel and size limits have remained unchanged since 1988. Biologists established the 12-inch minimum because most speckled trout reach sexual maturity at that size, giving about half the females a chance to spawn at least once before they end up in an ice chest. Roughly 83% of the specks caught by anglers are females because they grow faster than males.
Currently only 6% of the female specks are spawning in Louisiana while other states are seeing spawn rates between 20% and 35%, Adriance said.
Increasing the size limit to 13.5 inches would give nearly all females a chance to spawn. During the summer, it takes about a month for a speck to grow from 12 inches to 13.5 inches and about three months during the winter, Adriance said.
Several lawmakers asked LDWF officials why this was the first time they were hearing about the low levels of speckled trout stock.
Wildlife and Fisheries has been pushing for the new limits for several years. But to change or adopt new regulations, the agency must first get approval from the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission and then from the legislature.
The agency finalized its initial stock assessment and brought its proposal to the commission in 2019 after holding eight town hall meetings across the state and conducting polls and surveys to hear from the public. LDWF invited every saltwater fishing license holder in the state to participate in the surveys.
According to the results, the 15-fish/13.5-inch proposal was the most preferred option among other creel and size limit combinations, officials said.
However, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission balked on the issue and directed LDWF officials to conduct a second study, delaying action another two years. The agency completed its second assessment, found the same results of a record low speckled trout population and brought its proposal again to the commission in December 2021.
The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission delayed its approval an additional year, asking LDWF to conduct new surveys that included an option for keeping the current limits unchanged. Unexpectedly, Adriance said, the survey respondents preferred the proposed 13.5-inch/15-fish limits over the current 12-inch/25-fish limits.
Charter captains oppose size limits
“That was rather curious,” Adriance told lawmakers. “We did not expect that when we added the current bag limit.”
In total, the agency surveyed more than 8,000 people, though Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, questioned whether some respondents were able to vote multiple times. Adriance said he was unsure but added that LDWF would likely be able to track the respondents’ IP addresses.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Patrick Banks, LDWF assistant secretary of fisheries, said the challenges with getting approval from the commission and the legislature are because of opposition from recreational fishing organizations.
“The population is not in a good place right now,” Banks said. “So far, the recreational fishing community has fought us every step of the way.”
Richard Fischer, executive director of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, said his organization is opposed to a 13.5-inch size limit but would support the 15-fish creel limit if the agency would agree to keep the current 12-inch size limit.
Fischer said he has heard from many charter boat captains in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes who said they rarely see specks above 12 inches anymore. A 13.5-inch size limit would hurt their business, he said.
“They’re not finding big trout at all in those areas,” Fischer said in a phone call Thursday.
Charter boat captains also think LDWF’s data on discard mortality rates could be inaccurate. Discard mortality rates measure the survivability of fish that are caught and released. Some anglers see size limits as wasteful. They believe many undersized fish that are thrown back end up dying if they are weakened or bloodied.
LDWF used a discard mortality rate of 10% in its studies, but Fischer pointed to other research that has found higher mortality rates. One of those is a 2003 fact sheet from the LSU AgCenter that indicates discard mortality rates as high as 26% for speckled trout.
“I want to be absolutely clear — I am not disputing the (LDWF’s) science,” Fischer said. “I’m just saying there is other science out there from independent biologists saying the mortality rate is higher than 10%.”
Lawmakers offer input, suggestions
Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, mounted the same argument at Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“If you’re scaling that fish with your hands, if it’s beating around in a boat, if the hook’s embedded in its stomach, and you release that fish, it’s going to be eaten by another fish, a predator or it’s going to die,” Romero told LDWF officials. “And I think 10% (mortality) is rather low… I’m not a professional, but I’m just saying as a person who puts those fish back into the water, I don’t see them recovering.”
Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs, asked LDWF officials if they considered creating a closed season for speckled trout. Some fish species, such as red snapper, can only be caught during a specific time of year. A closed season would prohibit fishing a certain species during a specified period.
Adriance said a single closed season year would actually help the speckled trout population rebound to target levels, but the idea polled very poorly with anglers and the public.
Allain said the agency should be working to rebuild habitat rather than restricting recreational anglers. LDWF officials acknowledged that habitat loss is the primary driver of the declining speckled trout stock but said the agency’s job is to regulate fishing and hunting. An agency such as the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) would have to address Allain’s suggestion, they said.
“We don’t rebuild habitat like CPRA does,” Banks said in a phone call. “The knob we have to turn is fishing regulations.”
Banks agreed that recreational fishing is not entirely to blame for the declining speck stock, but added that habitat restoration isn’t fast enough to keep up with the current fishing demand.
“The fact is that the population cannot sustain the level of removals that is going on right now,” Banks said. “We are taking too many fish out of our waters.”
Charter boat captains are equally worried about the stock but feel the 15-fish daily bag limit is enough for speck levels to recover, Fischer said.
“There’s certainly reason to be worried and concerned,” he said. “I’m just not convinced increasing the size limit gets us there.”
Wildlife and Fisheries has not yet said whether it plans to amend the proposal or try to bypass the legislature by asking Gov. John Bel Edwards to order its adoption.
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