Trout Limits Halved by Texas Parks and Wildlife...Regionalization Lowers Limits for Lower Laguna Madre

When Kathie Lopez from McAllen went fishing in the Lower Laguna Madre several days ago she had an excellent trip and returned to Jim's Pier on South Padre Island with a limit of ten trout. She will not be able to do that again beginning September 1, when new state regulations go into effect limiting all anglers in the bay to five trout per day.

"It doesn't really bother me, because I am here all the time," Lopez said. "I think I wouldn't be happy if I came down once a year to do it and I could only catch a few fish. I'll just have to fish more often, because we like to eat a lot of fish. To be able to catch the trout we are going to have to fish more often, which isn't a bad deal," she added with a laugh.

Captain Hector Torres was Lopez's guide, and he doesn't think the new regulations will affect his business. "Over the years I have developed a good relationship with my clients, and I have a lot of people who really like to fish," Torres said. "I have been blessed with fishermen who understand what is going on, and as long as they can keep enough to eat and have a chance at catching a big trout then they are happy."

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, TPWD, spotted sea trout numbers are declining in the Lower Laguna Madre, and excessive fishing pressure appears to be the primary cause. "The purpose of this regulation is to reverse the downward trend in populations that we have seen and return our fishery to what was a world class fishery," said Mark Lingo, TPWD Lower Laguna Madre Ecosystem Leader.

When the TPWD Commission voted earlier this month to reduce the bag and possession limit for trout to five in the Lower Laguna Madre it marked the first time the department has adopted a regional approach to managing the states bays. In previous years all Texas bays had identical limits on game fish.

While every other bay in Texas boasts an upward trend in trout abundance, the Lower Laguna Madre suffers a steady decline, and that descent has resulted in a nearly 50 percent reduction in the relative abundance of spotted seatrout. Biologists have also monitored a nearly 50 percent drop during the past decade in spawning stock biomass , which is the total sample weight of female trout of breeding size taken in annual gill surveys.

"Our fishery is not in danger," Lingo said. "We still have probably what is equal to the same number of fish that you would find elsewhere along the coast." While catch rates in the Lower Laguna Madre are on a par with other bays, trout fishing is simply not as good as it used to be in the state's historically most productive trout fishery.

The Lower Laguna Madre is unique among Texas bay systems, and is the only hyper-saline coastal lagoon in North America and one of only five in the world. The bay lacks abundant freshwater inflows and the nutrients such estuaries provide. The Lower Laguna Madre has extensive sea grass beds and is an extremely shallow bay averaging less than three feet in depth. Trout in the bay are particularly susceptible to freeze events due to the lack of deep water refuge. The dramatic increase in fishing pressure has made it difficult for this delicate ecosystem to recover and trout in particular have suffered.

"I'm out here every day," said Captain Todd Casey who fishes out of South Padre Island. "I see the fish that are being caught, and I think it is a good thing we cut it down on the limits."

Todd's fishing partner Rodney Jones agrees. "I think it's great. Anything we can do to help out because there is so much fishing pressure now with increased population and more fishermen."

In a series of public meetings held up and down the coast there was considerable debate among anglers about the move to reduce limits and regionalize the restrictions. Some citizens were in favor of a more drastic reduction to three fish and others wanted no part of regionalization or lowered limits. Public comments ran 2,256 for the lower regional limits and 1,137 against.

The new regulation applies to the entire Lower Laguna Madre from Marker 21 in the Landcut to South Bay and includes the Brownsville Ship Channel and Arroyo Colorado. The area affected by the new regulation stops at the base of the jetties at the bay's two Gulf passes, the East Cut near Port Mansfield and Brazos Santiago Pass at South Padre Island. The Gulf beaches are not included in the restricted area, but any boats fishing in Gulf waters landing their catches within the boundaries would be subject to the lower limits.

Of particular concern to TPWD biologists is that spotted seatrout spawning stock biomass is approximately half what it was prior to the 1983-84 freeze, which resulted in a major kill of trout and other species along the lower coast. "So if you have half as many female fish in the population to spawn, and you have a catastrophic event like that freeze, the impact would be severe," Lingo said.

"There were a number of concerns about regionalization," TPWD Coastal Fisheries Director Larry McKinney told commissioners. "What we're proposing is a considerable change. We can take a small step now, or somewhere down the road we take a much more severe step. We do not want to get in the situation where we have to close seasons, as Florida has done. We're in a fortunate position in Texas, in that we can try to address things before they become crisis situations."

"We really don't know how long this is going to stay in effect," Lingo said. "It depends on how the fishery responds to the regulation changes. Fifty percent of the improvement we should see the first year, and approximately 80 percent by the third year. It takes nine years, the lifetime of a trout, to see the full impact of a new regulation change. But we should be able to see if there is going to be a change from these regulations within three years."

A relatively small percentage of fishermen will be affected by the lowered limits. "It was only 10 percent of recreational fishermen and 22 to 23 percent of guided trips that ever returned with more than five fish per angler," Lingo explained. "The new regulations should have a good impact on the fishery with a minimal impact on the fishermen."

Redfish numbers remain very strong and there was some discussion last year to up the limit from three per day to four. "Last year we offered to give a fish back, and it was overwhelmingly spoken against by the public," Lingo said. "Our studies show that we could give back a fish. We could make it a four fish bag limit and not have an effect on the population."

Other changes that were recently approved by the Commission that will be effective statewide include increasing the minimum length for sheepshead from the current 12 inches to 15 inches in increments of one inch per year. The minimum size on tarpon has also been increased from 80 inches to 85 inches. Circle hooks are now required when fishing for red snapper, but the commission voted to keep the year round season in state waters and current 15 inch minimum size limit.

"Today was awesome," Kathie Lopez said. "It was my first trip of the year, and I limited out. I caught all ten trout on topwaters. I live to fish. I'm hooked," she said with a smile. And after September 1, she can still have an awesome day and catch ten trout, but she will only be able to bring in half that number.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore