AUSTIN, Texas — The world-famous spotted seatrout fishery in the Lower Laguna Madre will get an extra measure of protection beginning in September after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted April 5 to lower the bag and possession limit for the species there from 10 to five.

The change, which was approved along with other suggested changes to the 2007-08 Statewide Hunting and Fishing Proclamation, would mark the first time the department has attempted a regional approach to managing a saltwater fishery.

The reduction in the daily bag limit addresses a downward trend in the spawning stock biomass of spotted seatrout in the Lower Laguna Madre — a trend that runs counter to steadily increasing populations elsewhere on the coast.

Of particular concern to TPWD biologists is that spotted seatrout spawning stock biomass currently is about half what it was at the time of the 1983-1984 freeze, which resulted in a major kill of spotted seatrout and other species along the lower coast.

A greater number of reproducing fish can help stocks recover faster after such a catastrophic event.

“As we moved into this year, for the first time our spotted seatrout catch rate for the LLM has fallen below the statewide average,” TPWD Coastal Fisheries Director Larry McKinney, Ph.D., told commissioners. “Spawning stock biomass continues to go down and we don’t see that trend turning around unless we do something.”

McKinney acknowledged that the proposal engendered considerable debate in scoping meetings and public hearings up and down the coast. Public comments ran 2,256 for the lower regional bag limits, and 1,137 against.

“There were a number of concerns about regionalization,” he 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.”

The new regulation applies to the entire Lower Laguna Madre, from Marker 21 in the Landcut, to South Bay and including the Brownsville Ship Channel and Arroyo Colorado. In a change from the proposal presented to commissioners in January, the area affected by the new regulation does not extend to the tips of the jetties at Gulf passes (the East Cut near Port Mansfield and Brazos Santiago Pass at South Padre Island), but stops at the base of the jetties.

The Gulf beaches are not included in the area, but any boats fishing in Gulf waters and landing their catches within the boundaries would be subject to the lower bag limits.

In addition to the regulation changing the bag and possession limits on spotted seatrout in the Lower Laguna Madre, the commission approved other changes in fishing regulations, including:

  • Increasing the minimum length limit for sheepshead from the current 12 inches to 15 inches, in increments of 1 inch per year. This would, by 2010, allow all retained fish to have reproduced at least once.
  • Implementing a “no-take” rule for Diamondback terrapins. The rule would exempt permitted non-game dealers and collectors.
  • Raising the minimum size limit on tarpon from 80 inches to 85 inches. In an earlier proposal, two options were considered: raising the minimum size to 90 inches, or implementing a purely catch and release fishery for tarpon in Texas. TPWD biologists worked with Jerry Ault, Ph.D., a University of Miami expert on tarpon, to instead arrive at an 85-inch minimum that would allow Texas anglers a shot at setting a new state record but would still provide significant conservation benefits. McKinney told commissioners that, eventually, catch and release would be proposed, but that it would be most effective if regulations are standardized in other Gulf states and Mexico.
  • Requiring the use of circle hooks when fishing for red snapper and maintaining the current 15-inch minimum size limit and a year-round season in state waters. Commissioners also approved the publication of a proposal to consider delegating rule-making authority with regard to red snapper to the TPWD executive director so the department could respond to changes in federal regulations more quickly. This proposal will come before the Commission for approval at the May meeting.
  • Enhancing the ability of Texas enforcement officials to prosecute cases in Texas courts by adding language in the Statewide Hunting and Fishing proclamation mirroring federal rules for the red snapper commercial fishery individual fishing quota (IFQ) program. This will allow state officials to make state cases when the case would otherwise not meet the profile/economic level to warrant federal prosecution.

The commission also approved minor changes to “clean-up” current rules, including broadening the definition of what types of boats are prohibited from harassing fish; including language that makes it clear that coastal and salt waters mean the same thing; exempting offshore aquaculture operators from state bag and size limits as they land cultured fish; and allowing the use of freshwater catfish heads in crab traps.

The TPW Commission approved an Inland Fisheries recommendation increasing the possession limit for striped bass from 10 to 20 on Lake Texoma. The change would reduce angler confusion with respect to fish landed in Texas.

Also approved was a one-year extension of the current provision allowing the harvest of catfish by means of lawful archery equipment which includes crossbows. The department is still in the process of evaluating the impact of the regulation on catfish populations.

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide