Mississippi is headed for a reduction in its speckled trout limits, and changes in both the daily creel and the allowable length on the popular game fish could soon be enacted.

“It’s coming,” said Department of Marine Resources (DMR) executive director Jamie Miller, “if not at the September meeting, then October. Everything is on the table — size limits, slot limits, bag limits and even season closures.”

The announcement came after the Commission on Marine Resources received bad news at its monthly meeting Tuesday in Biloxi, both from DMR biologists and from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Research Lab (GRL). The two groups collaborated on and presented an extensive stock assessment analysis of speckled trout to the commissioners.

Evidence from over 15 years shows changes in sport-fishing regulations are necessary, the biologists said, adding that the most popular game fish in the state is being overfished.

While the biologists say several other factors could contribute to the reduced population, there is only one factor that fisheries managers can control — mortality through fishing.

“We can change our fishing mortality” Dr. Paul Mickle, a biologist with the GRL, said. “Fish that are being removed from fishing, as managers, we can control this, and this is what we should discuss today.” 

This is not a Mississippi-based problem. Reduced speck numbers are a Gulf wide problem and several states have taken action and others are considering it.

Mississippi currently allows fishermen 15 specks per day, with a minimum length of 13 inches (shorter fish must be immediately released).

Only Louisiana, at 25 and 12 inches, is more liberal, and that state is currently discussing changes.

Texas has reduced its creel limit to 5 in some areas with a very tight length limit, and to 10 in other areas.

Florida’s northwest Gulf Coast has a 5-fish daily limit with only fish measuring between 15 and 20 inches legal to harvest. 

Alabama allows 10 fish, and all must be over 15 inches.

Miller reiterated that the agency will look at all possibilities when it comes to protecting this precious resource. The numbers are that scary.

“Ten years ago the stock was considered stable or sustainable,” he said. “Currently, we’ve seen an increase in recreational fishing and as a result of that, we’re taking more and more speckled trout out of the population.”

A key element of the stock assessment is the percentage of the population capable of reproduction (usually 12 inches and larger). The most recent surveys put the percentage at 10.2 percent, Miller said, far less than the desired 20 to 30 percent.

Another key element is fishing pressure, and it has increased considerably over the past decade and a half. The number of fishing trips where specks were the targeted species has risen annually from less than a million in Mississippi waters in the early 1990s to over 1.5 million trips in 2015.

Mississippi does allow a commercial harvest of trout, but the impact on the population has not changed in that same time period. Mississippi has an annual commercial quota of 50,000 pounds and the season is limited.

Studies show that the annual recreational catch rates have decreased steadily since hitting a peak in 2008, while the amount of fishing pressure has continued to increase. According to Miller, fishermen are not only making more trips but are also staying longer.

The Commission was startled by the presentation.

“When the scientists presented the assessment on Tuesday, the commissioners started asking and discussing what it would take to turn it around,” Miller said. “We were just stating some of the obvious things and communicating it clearly so that everyone could understand that everything is on the table.

“Our staff and the GRL are now studying it. They will be plugging in numbers to study how each change could impact the population, and from that come up with a staff recommendation to present to the Commission in September. I think after hearing the (assessment’s) startling numbers, they will want to take action in September, and if not then, then surely by October.”

Public input will be part of the process.

“We are talking about the best way to do a public meeting now, how to involve them,” he said. “They are starting to download the stock assessment now and are discussing it.

“I’ve heard some feedback already and it has been mostly positive. I think the fishermen are concerned about the resource. It’s such a popular fish. You can catch them off piers. Don’t have to have a big boat. It’s available. You can catch trout. It’s very popular and that’s why we have to pay such close attention.” 

The next Commission meeting is scheduled for Sept. 20 in Biloxi.