The latest Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was surprising to some, but not shocking to most Louisiana coastal fishermen.
LDWF Marine Fisheries biologists, working on what was called a “preliminary, but incomplete draft,” determined the state’s speckled trout is overfished, and that “landings had decreased to their lowest levels in recent years.”
While eyes arched and ears perked in some quarters, the news didn’t stun guys like Frank Dreher and other charterboat skippers working waters for miles north, east and west of Grand Isle.
Dreher operates Laid Back Charters and said there have been good and average years and not-so-good summers since Hurricane Katrina blasted the eastern Louisiana coast 14 years ago this August.
“We had plenty of (speckled trout) the two years after Katrina, but since 2013 it seems like we’re catching springtime fish much earlier than we did before,” Dreher said. “Years ago we fished the springtime run in late April into May, but we’re seeing those same catches coming in late March now.”
Dreher talked about the years following the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster and how the spill and elongated periods of rough early summer weather cut into summertime catches.
“But, since 2013, we’ve had a severe drop-off in catches in June and July,” Dreher said. “We’ve been struggling during those months. Yes, we’ve had good days mixed in those months, but (catches) have been very inconsistent, days when we run 80-85 miles to fish one or two spots for 20 fish.
“We should be catching speckled trout during those months, but we aren’t,” Dreher said.
Those decreased catches led some charterboat skippers to shutting down their operations during the past two peak summertime periods to save on fuel and other overhead expenses.
The four-paragraph LDWF proclamation came with an explanation from the agency’s fisheries top man Patrick Banks.
“It will probably not affect speckled trout limits for the 2019 season as there are additional management steps to be taken between a draft stock assessment and any final regulation change,” Banks said.“We will have a better sense of where we are when the stock assessment results are compiled, evaluated and finalized. But, we do know that the stock’s numbers have dropped.”
The next step
LDWF marine biologist Harry Blanchet said there’s more work to be done before any definitive speckled trout management plan can be proposed then implemented. Blanchet teamed with retired LDWF biologist Joey Shepard to develop the state’s highly acclaimed LA Creel system to manage the catch rates of red snapper among other offshore reef-fish species.
First, Blanchet said, the trout survey can’t be held to a timeline, because this assessment needs more time to work out the final details.
“In most cases, there are two ways to do stock assessments, and a major stock assessment like this — a total revision of the assessment — is typically sent out for peer review,” Blanchet said.
There are times when what Blanchet called an “internal” review fits the bill, when the entire fisheries staff makes sure all the numbers work, and the assessment follows the proper data collection, statistical analysis and conclusion protocols — and will go much further.
“We will work to finalize our data and when we’ve completed our analysis, we will have an internal review here, then when that’s done, we’re going to send it to other state agencies — Texas, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi — and others who have some expertise in spotted sea trout,” Blanchet said. “We need this peer review to support our positions. We hope they will handle it quickly and get back to us.”
The “back to us” part could be supporting the LDWF staff’s conclusions, or questioning any and all parts of the paper.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to guess at a timeline,” Blanchet said. “What we said was that we have a first draft, and from that we see the (speckled trout) stock was overfished and landings have decreased.”
There are several factors in the “overfished” scenario: true, fishing pressure is one, but habitat degradation, the lingering effects of tropical systems and the oil spill, and colder winters are major players, too.
“What’s molded into the assessment is that Mama Nature gives us a certain number of fish to deal with,” Blanchet said. “Fish come from the habitat and when we have no habitat we have no fish.
“We have good trout habitat here, but our coast has been changing for the last 50 years. The habitat is not as good as it was 50 years ago,” he said.
Noted here, too, is that catches of brown shrimp, a staple in the state’s spring inshore shrimp season, have declined during the past six years. Brown shrimp provide a grand meal for trout coming from the marshes after a winter of surviving on whatever forage was available.
“What we factor in is recruitment,” Blanchet said, mentioning a biological term for the numbers of young fish entering the stock of a specific species. Low recruitment means fewer fish in an age class to grow and become breeding stock, and there is an age class every year coming from that’s year’s spawn.
Blanchet said fishing mortality is a factor, too, and predation by other fish, birds and marine and terrestrial mammals — and fishermen’s catches — are factors in overall mortality and how fast those recruits are removed from the water.
What’s left is the overall stock numbers: “If you remove fish from the water too fast then that’s overfishing,” Blanchet said. “The term ‘overfished’ is not a rate of removal, but how many fish are in the waters compared to numbers if not fishing that hard, or not fishing at all.
“What we know now is that the (trout) stock biomass is going down, but not going past the management threshold,” he said, adding he expects the staff to find differences in basins from seasons to seasons.
“We want to go with this assessment, to look past a lot of local observations, and look at more long-term issues with the stock,” Blanchet said. “We want to determine whether stock is in good shape or not-so-well-framed, to develop a good estimate where our current condition is.”
His parting shot helped get a handle on the future.
“I think everyone knows we’re reluctant to change regulations,” Blanchet said. “We want to make sure there’s good science is behind what we recommend.”
Dreher said he believes he can speak for most coastal fishermen he knows when he said, “What we want is good science behind any changes that could come, not just from fishermen’s complaints, and we trust these men will do that.
“For now, all we’re seeing is Mississippi River water in the Grand Isle area,” he said. “We have to run far north to find clean water, and we know the Bonnet Carre (Spillway) has been opened three of the last four years.”
The high rivers, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, severely impact all the eastern half of Louisiana’s coastline, and the fish swimming in those waters.
“Where the habitat has been stable, in the western Terrebonne area, trout catches have been better during the times we’ve struggled over here,” Dreher said. “And I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard about fish kills — thousands of dead fish — during the winter in the interior marshes during the last two winters.
“We saw a lot of 11-inch (undersized) trout on the beaches last year and we hope that’s a good sign, but we didn’t see the bread-and-butter 13-to- 14-inchers we turn our dollar on.
“What will happen? I guess time will tell.”
The timeline, however long it might be, will bring the final reviewed stock assessment to the seven-member Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.
Bank’s staff indicated the final proposal could “include potential management options to improve the status of the stock … several possible recommendations, including, but not limited to, bag and size limit modifications.”
Public comment also will be part of the any final decisions.