Puzzling out the red drum: Fish population surveys contradict each other

A red drum is returned to the water after being tagged for research. Photo provided

Changes are coming for saltwater fishermen who target red drum (redfish) in South Carolina waters.

The South Carolina General Assembly passed a law reducing the daily catch limit for red drum from three fish to two per day and imposed a daily limit of six red drum per boat. The slot limit remains in effect with anglers only able to keep red drum that measure at least 15 inches but no longer than 23 inches.

The legislation, which becomes effective July 1, was signed by Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday.

Charles Farmer, the legislative liaison for Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina (CCA SC) and a former biologist for the state wildlife department, said it was clear that the red drum population needed help.

"The numbers were going down. Red drum is certainly one of the three most popular inshore species we have along with trout and flounder. It was imperative that we stay on top of that and make sure the population is protected," Farmer said.

"The numbers have gotten progressively worse in terms of scientific studies and surveys. (CCA SC) worked very closely with the Department of Natural Resources and helped get a Senate and House bill introduced that would change the bag limit of red drum.

"We are hopeful that this is going to be enough change to have the population turn around in terms of numbers. It's probably going to take a good three years to really see some change for the good and get back to a stable population."

Deputy director Robert Boyles of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Marine Resources Division, said anglers had approached DNR with their concerns and DNR hired Dr. Mike Murphy, a stock assessment analyst, to look at those numbers. Boyles said the conclusion was that we were overfishing red drum with the three-fish limit.

Boyles said the goal for red drum is to have a 40-percent spawning potential ratio (SPR) and that was not happening with the current limits. SPR has fluctuated between 30 and 40 percent over the past 10 years but currently the rate is estimated at approximately 20 percent.

Farmer said CCA membership was supportive of the measure and he expected the general public will agree with the change, saying the attitude of fishermen has changed a lot over the last 10 to 15 years and anglers are more conservation-minded.

If you wait too long to address a problem like this, Farmer said, the solution becomes more difficult.

"We gave a lot of thought about trying to do something last year, but we wanted to make sure the scientific data and information was as good as we could get," Farmer said. "We were in the position now where we couldn't wait any longer but at the same time we didn't take a draconian approach. What was the minimum amount we could do and have the least impact on fishermen but at the same time do everything we could do to make sure the red drum population has enough (protective) measures to correct itself? We think we hit it right."

Farmer said legislative support for the bill was impressive. The Senate version passed with a unanimous vote and there were only two dissenting votes in the House of Representatives.

South Carolina first began protecting the species in 1986 when anglers were allowed to keep only one fish over 32 inches. The next year a 20-fish daily bag limit was introduced. In 1990 a 14- to 32-inch slot limit was added.

In 1991 the bag limit was reduced to five fish. In 1993, the ASMFC said no red drum over 27 inches could be retained, reducing the slot limit to 14 to 27 inches. In 2001 the red drum limit was reduced to two fish per day in a 15- to 24-inch slot. The three-fish, 15- to 23-inch slot was enacted in 2007.