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October 03, 2003

Redfish Management: A Balancing Act

Appropriate regulations are critical to the success of the species

Newly hatched redfish endure a long and dangerous journey before reaching adulthood at a size of 27 to 30 inches. Of the millions of eggs a spawning female releases, only one or two might survive long enough to reproduce. A host of predators, winter freezes and hungry anglers all stand between the little red and maturity four years later. No wonder big redfish make such tenacious opponents - life just ain't been easy!

The trip to adulthood seems a little safer now that redfish enjoy protection from excessive recreational and commercial harvest. Many states have eliminated commercial fishing for redfish altogether; a few states allow the sale of redfish caught within recreational limits. North Carolina is the only Atlantic Coast state with a significant commercial harvest of redfish, an issue that remains controversial among Tarheel recreational anglers.

States along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts allow recreational harvest of red drum, but regulations ensure that adequate numbersof juveniles survive the perilous trip to join other adults of the species. Anglers who oppose severe regulations see a one- or two-fish-per-day creel limit combined with a tight slot limit as unnecessarily restrictive; some simply can't understand why they have to release that trophy fish, while others question daily limits in years when small redfish seem abundant.

One can fully appreciate the need for such restrictions only when they understand the redfish life cycle and fishery. Unlike its cousin the spotted seatrout, which matures in the second year of life, the redfish is a late bloomer. Anglers targeting redfish in most estuaries, bays and other inland waters, with a few exceptions like Florida's Mosquito Lagoon, exclusively catch immature fish. If managers took the same approach with redfish as with seatrout -protecting fish from harvest until spawning size - there would be a 27-inch or larger minimum-size limit for reds! Instead, fishery managers strive to balance the social and economic benefits of a harvest fishery with the long-term health of redfish populations.Thus far, a combination of creel and slot-size limits has proven the only way for redfish anglers to have their fish and eat it, too. Other methods under evaluation include the use of hatchery-reared fish to supplement wild populations.

State and federal fishery managers face increasing challenges to balance human desires and redfish conservation. Redfish reproductive success can vary tremendously from one year to the next, as do habitat conditions and (though trending upward) fishing effort. Anglers can do their part by complying with harvest regulations, practicing voluntary catch-and-release and protecting fish habitat. They can also participate in data-collection programs such as creel surveys and get involved in policy issues. The redfish's worst enemy is apathy.