A Tale of Two Red
Redfish and red snapper share a common history of Crisis and Recovery in the Gulf
They look different and live diverse life cycles, but redfish and red snapper have two similarities: Both species suffered from extensive overfishing about 30 years ago, and both should enjoy much better years to come. n Few states imposed any regulations on either species years ago. Fishermen often returned to docks proclaiming, “We caught four.” This didn’t mean they landed four fish but filled four large ice chests.
RED GOLD IN THE MARSH
Redfish, also called red drum, range from Mexico to Massachusetts. Every fall, redfish spawn offshore. One female might release a batch of eggs every few days, producing millions of offspring. Fry make their way into the marshes and estuaries where they grow into the familiar spot-tailed marauders that terrorize crabs, mullets, shrimp and other forage, often in water less than 1 foot deep.
They reach about 12 to 14 inches in their first year. At about the three- to five-year point, or at about 10 to 20 pounds, redfish move offshore and may even mix with red snapper in water as deep as 200 feet. A redfish may live more than 40 years and exceed 50 pounds. The world record topped 94 pounds.
Anglers can catch redfish in many ways. Some simply thread a shrimp, fish or crab onto a hook and toss it next to a grassy shoreline. Other people dangle bait from a float. Some lures, including topwaters, spoons, spinnerbaits and lead-head jigs tipped with soft plastic minnow or shrimp imitations, also work. In recent years, tempting spot-tails with fly tackle became popular.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, emerging technologies enabled anglers to more effectively target redfish. Riding larger boats pushed by more powerful engines, anglers could reach distant honey holes quickly and catch as many fish as they could carry.
“Harvest rates increased substantially from the 1960s to the 1980s,” says Harry Blanchet of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Marine Fisheries Division. “Back in the 1970s, there was too much harvest of juvenile redfish in inshore waters. Less than 10 percent survived to spawn. In Louisiana, the average size of a redfish taken in inshore waters in the early 1980s was about 12 inches. Then, a new commercial purse seine fishery was established to harvest adult redfish.”
In the mid-1980s, the Cajun-blackened redfish craze swept the nation. To meet the huge demand from restaurants, commercial netters caught redfish by the millions. Aided by aircraft, purse seiners could encircle enormous schools offshore, snatching perhaps 500,000 adult breeders in one swipe. With commercial anglers devastating breeding stocks and recreational anglers targeting juveniles before they spawned, redfish populations declined sharply.
“In the 1980s, the redfish stock was fished down,” says Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Fla. “In the late 1980s, several new state regulations went into place. Federal waters were closed to any redfish harvests and remain closed to this day.”
Texas jumped ahead of other states in redfish management. In 1981, Texas declared redfish a game fish, which eliminated it from commercial exploitation within state waters and put restrictions on recreational harvests. Other states soon followed. With proper management, redfish populations eventually rebounded all along the Gulf Coast.
“Redfish were heavily exploited in Texas about 20 years ago,” says Mark Fisher of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Coastal Fisheries Division. “Before 1977, there was no recreational daily bag limit. About 200 commercial fishermen were taking as many redfish as recreational fishermen. After 1981, the redfish population rose steadily. In Texas today, we have about three times as many redfish as we did 20 years ago.”
Today, Texas anglers may keep up to three redfish per day. Each must measure between 20 and 28 inches. With a license purchase, anglers receive one tag that allows them to keep a redfish exceeding 28 inches, but they can request a second annual tag.
Like most Gulf states, Louisiana tightened redfish limits in the mid-1980s and then removed gill nets from state waters in 1995. With 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the nation, Louisiana contains some of the best redfish habitats anywhere. Anglers may keep up to five redfish per day, each between 16 and 27 inches. One fish may exceed 27 inches.
Mississippi remains the only Gulf state that still allows a commercial redfish harvest, says Mike Buchanan of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Recreational anglers may keep up to three redfish per day, each between 18 and 30 inches with one exceeding 30 inches.
“The inshore population rebounded very quickly after we put in minimum length limits and reduced daily bag limits,” Buchanan says. “Now the redfish population in Mississippi is very good. Mississippi still has a limited commercial redfish industry with a 35,000-pound quota in state waters. We keep close tabs on it.”
Alabama allows anglers to keep up to three reds per person per day, each between 16 and 26 inches with one oversize fish, says Karon Radzik, a marine biologist with the Alabama Marine Resources Division. Anglers find reds in the Mobile Bay area, off Orange Beach and in marshes near Bayou La Batre.
Before the mid-1980s, Florida put few restrictions on redfish harvests until the population approached collapse from overfishing. Starting in 1986, the state began enacting laws curtailing recreational and commercial redfish harvests. Finally, the state banned redfish harvests entirely for months at a time, says Lee Schlesinger of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Marine Fisheries Management.
“Redfish were overfished in the 1980s,” Schlesinger says. “By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the redfish population could not sustain the harvests. In Florida, we went to numerous rule changes over several years that culminated in a complete closure of commercial redfishing in 1989. At the same time, we shut down the recreational fishery for three months each year and enforced a one-fish daily limit with a tight slot limit.”
Since 1996, Florida anglers could again keep redfish all year long. Anglers may keep one redfish per day measuring between 18 and 27 inches. With the ban on commercial fishing and restrictions on recreational harvests, the population rebounded.
“Red drum management in Florida is a success story,” Schlesinger says. “Once the commercial fishery ended and the recreational pressure lessened, stocks began to recover. Now we are slightly below meeting sustainment goals, but stocks are much better today than in the 1990s.”
RED SNAPPER STILL RECOVERING
The federal government still considers red snapper severely overfished. During a brief season in federal Gulf waters, recreational anglers may only keep two red snapper per day, each exceeding 16 inches. The season varies each year. In 2009, it lasted from June 1 through Aug. 15. Commercial fishermen may keep an annual snapper quota with a minimum legal length of 13 inches.
“Red snapper have been overfished since the late 1980s,” says Steve Atran, a fisheries biologist for the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council in Tampa, Fla. “Red snapper are still overfished, but they are doing much better now than in previous years. We have new data that indicates the stock is in much better shape than we’ve seen in recent years.”
Red snapper exist throughout the Gulf of Mexico and off the southeastern United States. Snapper begin spawning at 2 to 3 years old, when they reach about 12 to 13 inches long. One female may produce millions of eggs in multiple batches. Larvae drift for a few weeks before settling to the bottom, where they orient themselves to hard structure.
They prefer water from about 40 to 300 feet deep. Red snapper may live more than 50 years and exceed 50 pounds.
Commercial fishing for this highly marketable species began before the Civil War, mainly off the Florida panhandle, especially out of Pensacola. Soft mud bottoms in the western Gulf didn’t offer snapper much habitat. That changed after World War II as oil companies began building massive structures in the Gulf.
“Before the oil industry built platforms offshore, the western Gulf of Mexico didn’t have many red snappers,” says Bob Shipp of the University of South Alabama and author of Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. “Before the 1940s, Louisiana had essentially a flat mud bottom with only a few small hard spots. Those places were discovered around 1900 and fished heavily. Since the 1940s, we’ve seen a major shift in the snapper harvest to the western Gulf. If an oil platform extends 200 feet from the bottom through the surface, it makes an extensive three-dimensional habitat.”
Although scientists debate whether oil platforms create or simply concentrate fish, they certainly give anglers highly visible, easy-to-find places to fish. Most of the snapper-fishing off Louisiana and Texas occurs around petroleum platforms. To catch snapper, anglers need only drop a weighted line baited with a squid or fish to the bottom and wait for a bite.
“We had a strong depletion of red snapper stocks about 30 years ago,” Blanchet says. “They are starting to come back but haven’t quite filled out the age structure in the stock. Fish just need to grow and fill in those vacancies in age structure.”
By the late 1980s, snapper populations had declined drastically. In 1990, the average snapper caught by recreational fishermen weighed less than 2 pounds before limits restricted recreational harvests. Unique among states, Texas allows anglers to keep up to four red snapper per day with a 15-inch minimum length limit and no closed season in state waters. Texas state waters extend 10 miles from shore rather than the usual 3 miles off most coasts.
Mississippi and Alabama established many artificial reefs to provide red snapper habitats. About 10 miles off its barrier islands, Mississippi built more than 11,000 acres of artificial reefs in 60 to 80 feet of water. Alabama created more than 20,000 artificial reefs from about 15 miles from shore to about 75 miles out in water ranging from 65 to 500 feet deep.
“Alabama did not have much natural snapper habitat before we started creating artificial reefs,” says Kevin Anson, a marine biologist in the Alabama Marine Resources Division. “The predominant natural bottom type off Alabama is sand or mud bottom with little structure. Artificial structures allow fish to use water bottoms that were not historically productive for reef fish. Alabama anglers land 35 to 40 percent of the Gulf recreational red snapper despite having only about 5 percent of the coastline.”
Off Florida, red snapper stocks remain below goals but continue to increase in numbers and range. With boundaries extending 9 miles from shore, Florida anglers can find some snapper in state waters.
“In the 1960s, Florida had many snappers, but 10 years ago, there were hardly any snappers off the west coast of Florida,” Atran says. “In the past five years, we started seeing more red snapper in areas where they haven’t been seen in many years, such as off Tampa and as far south as Naples. In some places off Florida now, fishermen complain that they can’t catch grouper because too many snapper eat their baits.”
Besides overfishing, snapper face another challenge, mortality from shrimp trawls. Trawls may catch and kill juvenile snapper. The federal government requires shrimpers to attach bycatch-reduction devices to their trawls to allow juvenile snappers and other creatures to escape.
“Bycatch-reduction devices have not been as effective in reducing snapper mortality as we had hoped,” Atran says. “What’s helped in recent years is the decline in the shrimping industry because of economic conditions and hurricanes. The shrimp fleet has been reduced by about 80 percent. In addition, recent studies suggest that natural mortality of juvenile snapper is higher than we thought, meaning many snapper that would be killed in trawls are dying anyway from natural causes.”
Like redfish, the red snapper population hit the road to recovery, but because individual fish may live more than 50 years, it takes decades to grow old snappers.
Fortunately, though, the prognosis looks great for both species. Good management should keep these magnificent, delicious fish fighting on lines for many years to come.