Spotted Seatrout in the Lower Laguna Madre

A Regional Approach to Restoring a World Class Fishery

Part II — Management Issues

by Dr. Larry McKinney, Director Coastal Fisheries, TPWD, Austin

The biological basis for developing a regionally based approach was presented in Part I. In Part II the other factors that go into developing effective regulations and the various options being considered are presente.

author with undersized spotted 

Regional Management of Spotted Seatrout in the lower Laguna Madre — Management Issues.

The biological data makes a strong case for taking corrective management action. The question of what action to take and when to take it brings a broad array of additional factors into consideration. Recreational fishing on the Texas coast is big business annually providing over $1.3 billion in economic impact and thousands of jobs for the coastal economy. Such decisions should not be taken lightly and they are not.

One policy option to consider is to take no action. In the case of spotted seatrout (SST) in the lower Laguna Madre (LLM) the consequence of such a decision might not be immediately felt. As noted population levels of spotted seatrout are currently about the same as the statewide average. Fishing should remain as good as anywhere along the coast for some time to come, but if no action is taken, the fishing conditions will likely not return to the historically better fishing conditions as compared to the rest of the coast. Maintaining the status quo or not taking any action would address the fears of those concerned with the potential loss of business if regionally based regulations were implemented. The downside of a "no action" decision would be that it would take far more drastic action to correct the problem should it worsen as fishery biologists predict. Additionally, the impact of a severe freeze anytime in the near future would be greatly exacerbated should current trends (aka spawning stock biomass) continue downward as expected. In that situation management options would most likely be more restrictive than those now being contemplated.

The dilemma is a classic one in fisheries. Anglers and the coastal businesses that rely on anglers may be more concerned about the possible immediate adverse economic impacts of regulatory change than the future benefits that would occur because of that change. It is understandable because small businesses which depend on the resource are often looking at the situation from a short-run business perspective. Any disruption in the business may leave some of these businesses and local communities harmed in the short run. Of course, the "no action" alternative may also leave these businesses and local communities harmed in both the short and long run. There is a considerable body of case studies that shed light on situations where no action was taken and there is a common theme and it has never been positive.

The assumption that a specific regulation in the LLM would have significant adverse economic impact to the region is not necessarily a sound one. The LLM is a unique and relatively isolated waterbody that provides a very special fishing experience. Many guides and businesses recognize and promote this aspect rather than promoting the ability to take limits of a species each trip. Being successful under the contemplated regulatory proposal may require some level of change on the part of anglers, local guides, and businesses. It is as likely to have no significant effect at all. It may also be an opportunity to promote the unique character of the LLM fishing experience to a special advantage. Regardless, the potential economic impact of regulatory decisions is an important consideration for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission whenever they contemplate regulatory action. TPWD has and will work closely with affected parties to minimize any short run impacts while taking those steps necessary to assure the future of the fishery.

It is instructive to recall past history in the regulation of recreational fisheries in Texas in this regard. When the bag limit for red drum was proposed to be reduced to three in 1988 similar dire predictions were made about the economic impacts of such a decision. Suffice it to say that those predictions did not materialize. In fact, as recently as last year when TPWD opened the discussion of a possible increase in red drum limits our constituents responded with an overwhelming negative response. It is gratifying as a fisheries manager to have that kind of conservation-minded attitude in the angling community.

Regional versus Statewide Management.

The advantages of maintaining statewide regulations have been discussed. It was also noted that the scientific basis upon which to take regional action is strong and well developed. Regionally based fishery management is widespread. The Inland Fisheries Division of TPWD routinely employs this approach to address specific management needs. Other state like Alaska and closer to home Florida, use regional approaches to manage marine fisheries. Regional regulations are common in the commercial fishery here in Texas.

There are two primary reasons for considering regional management approaches. The first is to address resource based concerns for populations or species that are confined geographically. Spotted seatrout is one that meets this criterion. The second reason is to address issues of fishing pressure, again where that pressure has defined geographic boundaries. The Lower Laguna Madre meets such a criterion as well.

It has been argued that if something must be done to address spotted seatrout in the LLM it would be better to also apply that remedy statewide rather than to that specific area. The idea has been expressed as "spreading the pain". The support for this idea can largely be characterized as three key arguments/opinions. One argument is that anglers would not come to an area where bag limits were lower thus causing adverse economic impacts to that region. Another argument is that fishing pressure on adjacent areas would increase to deleterious levels. The last argument can be described as "the camel's nose under the tent" or if regional management was ever adopted it might eventually come to my bay and that would be bad for me.

From a management perspective it makes no sense to "fix" a problem if it does not exist. If you have a flat tire you do not buy four new ones – you repair the flat. Monitoring data show that SST populations in Texas (excepting the LLM) are headed in the right direction for both overall abundance and for the numbers of "big trout". The numbers of larger trout taken in the upper Laguna this year was exceptional and barring something like a freeze such catches should continue. Data indicates that the upper Laguna Madre region, directly adjacent to the LLM can withstand any reasonably expected increase in pressure. Should a regional approach be adopted that will be something that will be closely watched.

One of the fundamental goals of the TPWD Commission is to expand opportunities for Texans to enjoy the benefits of our fish and wildlife resources. Any action to restrict opportunity when it is not necessary for conservation reasons would be contrary to that guidance.

Regulation Options for the LLM.

TPWD biologists used monitoring data to model SST population changes under a range of bag and size limits. In Table 1, four aspects of life history impacts were assessed: total population, spawning biomass, harvest, mean catch size, and increase in number of fish greater than 25 inch length. Initial model runs that included raising minimum catch lengths in conjunction with decreased bag limits were not significantly different from model runs that assessed a decrease in bag limits alone. One of those analyses was included in Table 1 as an example. The one aspect that did change significantly was the mean catch size, which increased as would be expected. Changing the minimum length had little impact on other important aspects like spawning biomass and total population but had a greater overall impact on the total harvest (landings) in the fishery. The decision was made to restrict staff consideration to changes in bag limits to keep any regulation recommendation as simple as possible, as well as to balance the gains in total biomass and spawning stock biomass against the direct cost of harvest. Minimizing the overall impacts to harvest is critical to maintaining the economic interests that are concerned over the changes being discussed.

Table 1. Anticipated changes in spotted seatrout populations in the Lower Laguna Madre under different length and bag limits. Changes are relative to those that would likely occur if bag and size limits remained unchanged.
Life History Parameter 10 Fish
16" min
7 Fish
15" min
5 Fish
15" min
4 Fish
15" min
3 Fish
15" min
Total Population +4% +1% +3% +5% +7%
Spawning Biomass -1% +6% +15% +22% +33%
Harvest -25% -5% -13% -19% -27%
Mean Catch Size 18.2 in 17.3 in 17.4 in 17.5 in 17.6 in
Population >= 25 inches +4% +14% +38% +58% +90%

Four possible LLM specific regulations are shown on Table 1 as the most likely range of options for further consideration and include a reduction in bag limits of: 7, 5, 4 and 3 fish. The percentages shown indicate change above (an increase in population or weight) or below (a decrease in population or weight) what would be expected under the current 10 fish bag. As might be expected none of the options modeled had much impact on the mean catch size. It would remain around seventeen and a half inches primarily because no changes were proposed in minimum lengths. As bag limits are reduced there is a proportionally greater positive impact on total population, spawning biomass and the number of SST over 25 inches. Harvest is also proportionally reduced. It is clear that the quickest route to recovery is by the most restrictive bag limit. Responsible fisheries management decisions must also consider and incorporate where possible the range of possible socio-economic impacts of that decision so it is not a simple matter of picking the lowest limit possible.

Regardless of the option chosen one common result was evident. Positive changes in total population and spawning biomass react to a proposed regulatory change fairly quickly, with about 50% of benefits realized after just one year of implementation and almost 80% after just two years. That is good news. The effect on larger fish (+25 inches) is, as might be expected, slower to appear. About 20% of benefits are realized in the first year and 40% by the second year. Most of the total population and the spawning population are concentrated in the first three to four year classes so these benefits accrue more quickly than in older populations. It is a sobering point to note that it can take nine years for the impact of any regulation to be fully realized in the population. That is because every trout in the population has to be exposed to the new regulations for their entire lifetime (average life span of nine years). TPWD's goal would be to take all possible steps to accelerate recovery as quickly as possible.

One action we have already initiated is to focus hatchery efforts on stocking SST in the LLM. This is not a quick action as brood stock and capacity issues must be increased but this is already underway. It is anticipated that with favorable conditions we can achieve hatchery production of up to 2,000,000 Lower Laguna SST fingerlings per year starting next year. Some have suggested that we could address the spotted seatrout issue in the LLM by this means alone, without the need for regulatory "fixes". This is not the case primarily because the data do not indicate a recruitment problem at this time. Hatchery related strategies are principally directed at addressing recruitment problems, not the case for SST in the LLM. We will take no chance, however, and include this action as one of our management strategies. The possibility of catastrophic freezes remains a concern and we want to be ready to respond if needed.

Regional management for the future.

The decision to propose regional management for SST was not an easy one for us in Coastal Fisheries for all of the reasons previously mentioned. Serious consideration of the idea began two years ago when it was first proposed at the in-house regulatory meetings held in the mid- to late- summer of each year. This is the meeting where all the division biologists come together to propose and review new rules that might be submitted for the annual TPWD regulatory process. Two years ago it was decided that additional information was needed. That need initiated a new coastwide stock assessment for SST. After this years meeting where all of the information was presented and debated it was the clear consensus that a regional approach was necessary and appropriate. Some have tried to make the point that TPWD is only reacting to a small but vocal group advocating smaller bag limits, trophy trout and even a ban on live bait. This is not the case as our fisheries biologists have been assessing the issue for several years making sure we have assembled the pertinent data before recommending a course of corrective action. We now believe we are at that point.

The proposal before the Commission makes no mention of means or methods in regards to live or artificial baits. The proposal does not increase the minimum retention length, addressing bag limits only. If a trophy trout fishery was desired that would be a logical inclusion. Larger trout will likely result from the proposal because the overall population will increase. Staff has chosen to recommend a five fish bag limit as that should generate a readily measurable response in a reasonable timeframe to see if the regulations are being effective in reversing the downward trend in the population.

The use of regionally specific regulations is a concept that will remain a management option for the future regardless of what specific action may be taken regarding the LLM. The Coastal Fisheries monitoring program was designed to accommodate such a need. The management focus of TPWD's Coastal Fisheries Division has been to build a strong and sustainable recreational fishery in Texas since the designation of red drum and spotted seatrout as sportfish and commercial fishing for them ended. In this effort, with the support and leadership of our constituents we have been successful beyond our greatest expectations. The fishery today is in better shape than at any time in the previous 30 years. Our goal is to sustain those gains for the next generations of Texas anglers. That is a challenge of increasing difficulty due in some part to our own success. The popularity of saltwater fishing is growing at a rapid pace and those pressures are added to the environmental pressures of decreased freshwater inflows, habitat loss, etc. We need every management tool available if we are to succeed. Fisheries management in Texas is at the point that we no longer need only a driver in our bag of clubs – we need them all. We are in the enviable position of having the capacity to fine tune our fisheries only as needed and where needed to sustain them. It is a new paradigm, a new way of managing our fisheries. It is something we should embrace and celebrate as an indicator of our success – because it surely is that.