Where Have All the Flounder Gone?

"This is the worst year I have ever seen for flounder fishing," said veteran angler Chuck Bothwell of Harlingen, who has been fishing the Lower Laguna Madre since 1947.

Bothwell's bleak assessment of flounder fishing is shared by other experienced anglers and is reflected in recent tournament results. Last weekend during the Port Mansfield Fishing Tournament the joke dockside was that the once common flounder be awarded the most unusual prize as only one was weighed in. A couple of weeks before only two were brought to the weigh station during the annual Arroyo Colorado tourney.

While local flounder fishermen have lamented a downward trend for years, they were usually able to catch a few, and last year numbers actually seemed to be slightly improving. "I just don't understand it," said dedicated flounder angler Chuck Fultz of Harlingen. "I don't think I have ever seen flounder fishing be this bad."

"We can't find them either," said Mark Fisher, Director of Science for Texas Parks and Wildlife Coastal Fisheries. In fact, local marine biologists tallied no southern flounder in their spring gill net sampling from the Lower Laguna Madre. "The past few years along the entire coast has not been good for them, especially recruitment has been low, and the further south you go the fewer you see."

So where have all the flounder gone? Global warming, losses attributed to shrimp trawl bycatch, commercial gigging pressure and excessive recreational harvest are all possible factors contributing to the disappearance of the tasty flatfish.

Because of their delicious flavor, flounder are one of the top three fish targeted by anglers is Texas bays, but unlike redfish and trout they produce fewer eggs and are having a tough time sustaining their numbers. During the early 1980's red drum and spotted sea trout were given game fish status which resulted in increased commercial fishing pressure on flounder. Texas saltwater anglers number more than 800,000, and recreational fishing and gigging harvest has increased. The bycatch of juvenile flounder in shrimp trawls has had a negative effect on flounder populations.

The southern flounder, Paralichtys lethostigma, is the largest of more than 25 species of flatfish found in Texas coastal waters. They are prized as table fare and account for more than 95 percent of the state's flounder harvest. Southern flounder occur from North Carolina southward into Mexico.

Flounder are compressed laterally and spend most of their life lying or swimming on their side. Both eyes in adult flounder are located on the "up" side of the head. Flounder are ambush predators and spend much of their time burrowed into the bottom where they lay in wait for other fish or shrimp to venture within striking distance of their large mouth and sharp teeth. They are able to alter their pigmentation to blend in with their surroundings and often appear in varying shades of mottled brown.

These days, anything over a couple of pounds is considered a big flounder, if you can catch one at all. "We used to be able to catch four and five pound flounder regularly years ago," Bothwell recalled.

Flounder spawn in offshore waters when they reach two years of age. Each female can spawn several times a season and produce some 20,000 to 30,000 eggs per spawn. That may sound like a lot, but not when compared to other fish.

"They just don't have that recruitment potential like red drum, spotted seatrout or other fish," said Dr. Greg Stunz, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. "They don't have nearly the egg producing capability of say a red drum that can produce two million eggs during a spawning event. There is a huge spawning difference."

After the females release their eggs into the offshore currents the males fertilize them. When the eggs hatch, flounder larvae are symmetrical with their eyes on both sides of their body. However, as flounder grow in size they undergo a fascinating metamorphosis, and their right eye migrates to the left side of their head. When flounder reach approximately half an inch in length, the eye has completed its migration.

Juvenile flounder drift into the bays and estuaries in the spring, but return to higher salinity offshore areas in the winter as they approach one year of age and about a foot in length. The minimum size for a keeper flounder is 14 inches, and the majority taken by fishermen is females.

"In general, male flounder don't get very big," said Stunz. "They don't reach a size where they are legal to keep until late in their life. What you are harvesting is the females, and that is typically not a good thing, because you are removing those spawners from the population in disproportionate numbers."

Along the upper Texas coast, biologists estimated that 80 percent of flounder mortality was the result of shrimp trawl bycatch. The bottom dwelling juvenile flounder are particularly susceptible to the indiscriminate nets of trawlers. However, an aggressive buy back program where licenses are bought out of the fishery has resulted in removal of more than 40 bay trawlers and a significant reduction in flounder mortality.

Historically, bay trawling has not been seen as a major problem for flounder in the Lower Laguna Madre, and the state's southernmost bay system may be suffering a flounder loss exacerbated by warming temperatures. "We have had some interesting discussions about it, and this may actually have something to do with the signs of global warming," said Larry McKinney, Director of Coastal Fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

"Our winter low temperatures have been increasing," McKinney said. "When flounder go out into the Gulf to spawn they be may be suffering more predation of their eggs in warming waters." He also noted that, "It may be that flounder as a species are moving north."

"We are certainly aware of the declines and are watching this very closely, and the first thing we have to do is figure out the cause," said Fisher. "It may be a combination of exploitation by a variety of sectors."

Flounder fishermen are allowed 10 per day in their bag, and the possession limit is also 10. Commercial giggers are allowed 60 per day.

Chuck Bothwell and many other fishermen want to see flounder receive further protection, particularly from commercial harvest. "I think they ought to be put on game fish status," Bothwell said.

"The fact that there is still a commercial fishery for them is not helping the downward trend that is going on," said Dr. Stunz. That statement is supported by Coastal Fisheries data which show commercial harvest in the Lower Laguna Madre to be equal to or in excess of recreational take during the past five years.

This has been a very unusual spring and summer with above average rainfall, and there was a tremendous amount of seismic work done in the bay south of the Arroyo. Also, many guides are noticing an extremely high perch population and a decrease in shrimp and crab numbers, primary food for flounder. All these factors may have contributed to the disappearance of flounder from habitual haunts in the Lower Laguna Madre. But with downward trends prevailing in recent years, a likely cause is increasing pressure from commercial and recreational giggers during the fall when flounder mass at the passes and are susceptible to over harvest.

As one concerned angler observed, and it could be a description from anywhere on the coast of night giggers during the fall flounder run; "They are lined up like a parade all night long one right after the other, and it is kind of amazing to think that the flounder can withstand that kind of pressure, and maybe we are seeing signs that they are not."


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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore