Alabama’s saltwater anglers will soon be required to abide by changes to the bag and/or length limits on several popular fish species.
On August 1, the length and bag limits will change for speckled trout (spotted seatrout) and southern flounder, while the length limit will increase for cobia, also known as ling or lemonfish.
Jason Downey, Alabama Marine Resources’ Enforcement Chief, said the speckled trout regulations will move to a slot limit, which means anglers will be allowed to keep trout that measure between 15 and 22 inches total length with an allowance for one fish over 22 inches total length. The bag limit will be reduced to six speckled trout per person per day.
Alabama’s inshore anglers should be familiar with the slot limit. Red drum (redfish) have been regulated for several years by a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches total length. An allowance for one fish larger than 26 inches (bull red) is included.
The southern flounder size limit will be increased to 14 inches total length, and the bag limit will be reduced to five per person for recreational anglers.
The limits for commercial anglers will be 14 inches total length with a daily limit of 40 per person or 40 per vessel.
The entire month of November will be closed to flounder fishing, both recreational and commercial. November is when flounder migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.
Marine Resources (MRD) conducted five public meetings along the Alabama Gulf Coast to discuss proposed trout and flounder changes, provide information from the stock assessments for those two fish and gain feedback from the public on the potential changes. MRD also accepted email comments from the public as well as by phone.
“In general, the public was supportive of making changes to both trout and flounder because people had noticed changes in their ability to catch these species,” said Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. “They also realized the amount of people who are targeting these fish and how dramatically that has increased over the past few years.”
Eastern Shore resident Rob Constantine recently shared how he often watches boat after boat heading to the inshore artificial reefs to target trout, redfish and flounder.
“I used to be able to count on catching five or six speckled trout every time I went out,” he said. “I can’t do that anymore. Some days I don’t catch any trout. I’d like to be able to take my grandchildren out and catch a few trout. The future is our grandchildren, and we have to have something for them to catch or they lose interest.”
During the recent fishing event for The Fallen Outdoors, Capt. Bobby Abruscato said he welcomes the changes to the trout limit.
“The people who fish with me understand that I prefer to release as many fish as possible,” Abruscato said. “Most of my customers just want enough fish for supper, and others don’t want any fish at all. They just love catching them.”
Abruscato is one of the veteran guides who started fishing the Alabama Gulf Coast when the inshore fishing pressure was limited to a dozen or so regular guides. Those numbers have increased dramatically.
Bannon said MRD sold 269 guide licenses for boats with six passengers or less in 2018. Most of those guides are fishing inshore.
“We saw a huge increase from the early 1990s through the early 2010s,” Bannon said. “We went from 50,000 inshore fishing trips annually in the early ’90s to more than 500,000 in 2011. That’s 10 times the number of anglers targeting trout.”
Bannon said the increase in the number of inshore trips has not abated since that survey was completed.
“I tell people that a good economy translates to an increase in fishing pressure,” he said. “We’ve seen that in the last couple of years. We realize some of that comes with effort shift with the short seasons for some of the federally regulated offshore species that are highly sought after. People still want to fish, so they target these inshore species.
“In south Alabama, fishing is just a way of life. That’s what people want to do with their recreational time. So, they’re going to target species that are available to them, whether it’s inshore or offshore fish.”
Kevin Anson, Marine Resources’ Chief Marine Biologist, noted during those earlier public meetings that stock assessments conducted independently through the University of South Alabama indicated that both speckled trout and flounder populations are in decline. The harvest in the past five to seven years shows the trout breeding stock are not at a sustainable level. Although not as critical as flounder, speckled trout could reach that stage if changes (in harvest) are not made.
Anson said an increase in the trout minimum length to 15 inches would allow more than 227,000 trout to be returned to the water annually. The slot limit will increase the survival of the large, female trout, which account for the bulk of egg production during spawning activity.
Other Gulf states have seen reduced flounder landings and have either made regulation changes or are considering them.
MRD estimated the harvest of about 350,000 flounder in 2002. That harvest has dwindled to about 150,000 in 2017.
Fisheries managers use spawning potential ratio (SPR) to determine the health of a fish stock. For flounder, the target SPR to maintain the population is between 25 and 30 percent.
At the current harvest rate, a 12-inch minimum size for flounder would not be able to reach the target SPR and achieve a sustainable population. The larger a female flounder grows, the greater the number of eggs she releases during the spawn.
According to MRD data, an increase in the minimum size to 14 inches would allow 38 percent more flounder to remain in the water.
After hearing concerns from anglers, MRD approved an increase in the cobia size limit to 36 inches fork length, consistent with federal regulations. The bag limit remains at two per person for recreational anglers.
When anglers get ready to renew their fishing licenses at the end of August, a new endorsement will be required for those who target popular reef fish.
“The Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement will be available when people renew their licenses for next year,” Downey said. “When they renew their licenses, they need to get the Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement if they plan to fish for snapper, triggerfish, tile fish, amberjack and a list of other reef fish.”
The Gulf Reef Fish Endorsement will be $10 per angler for private recreational anglers. Charter boat fees range from $150-$250, and commercial vessels are assessed at $200 per vessel.
The reef fish covered in the endorsement are defined in state law 220-3-.46. Visit www.alabamaadministrativecode.state.al.us/docs/con_/220-3.pdf for a complete list of reef fish included.
In other changes, the minimum size limit for shortfin mako shark has been increased to 71 inches fork length for males and 83 inches fork length for females, which is also consistent with federal regulations.
Also, new hook regulations will go into effect for reef fish and sharks. When fishing for sharks and all Gulf reef fish, anglers must use non-stainless circle hooks. Additionally, hooks used for sharks must be non-offset, which means the tip of the hook must be in line with the shank.