In a surprise move, and two days prior to a public hearing on speckled trout, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources voted 4-1 on Tuesday in Pascagoula to rescind a three-month closure on specks in 2017.

The decision negates a vote held at the Commission’s October meeting that would have closed Mississippi’s coastal waters to recreational speckled trout fishing from Jan. 1 to March 31 next year.

Thursday night’s public hearing will still be held and discussions will likely center now on the proposed change from the current 13-inch minimum to a 15-inch minimum, a change that has far more public support than the closure encountered. Another proposed change that came out of the October meeting would stop the practice of allowing for-hire charter captains or deck hands contribute to a party’s catch. 

According to a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, the vast majority of comments received since the October vote involved the closure. Avid speck angler Tony Grice of Ocean Springs understood.

“I think that as a whole, or at least 80 to 90 percent of us, sports fishermen on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are supportive of a length limit change, and probably most of us on a (creel) limit, too,” Grice said. “We care about the future of speck fishing because we hold it so dear to the quality of life. It’s a fish that just about any coastal angler, whether they be a big boat owner or just a bank fishermen, can enjoy at different times of the year.

“But a closure of a season is different. That is loss of opportunity. That impacts everybody, beginning with bait shop and tackle shop owners. You close the trout season on the coast, and that’s significant. That’s more a worst-case scenario, the last option you choose. I know our speck fishing is off, but it’s not that bad yet.”

Mississippi fishermen and fisheries management officials are concerned by the failing status of the speckled trout fishery, especially a falling spawning potential ratio (SPR) percent. Most Gulf Coast states use an SPR of 18 percent as a benchmark for a healthy fishery. DMR has established 20 percent as its target.

The SPR fell to 9.3 percent in 2016, leading to the recent announced actions.

Thursday night’s hearing will begin at 6 p.m. in the first floor auditorium of the Bolton Building, 1141 Bayview Avenue in Biloxi.

The Coastal Conservation Association of Mississippi supports the increased minimum length limit, but was on record as opposing the season closure until the impact of the length change can be assessed.

Tom Turner of Gautier, a speck angler who told Mississippi Sportsman in October that he supported the CCA’s plan, was happy with Tuesday’s news.

“I just don’t like the idea of a closure, that they tell me I can’t go fish for specks,” he said. “We may get there one day, but the precedent of setting a closure is a scary thing for coastal fishermen. Remember, this whole red snapper fiasco and the cries of mismanagement began for us when they started closing the season and once that precedent was set, they just kept going and going and going, kind of like that rabbit on the battery commercial. 

“We all want better speck fishing, but the timing of this announced closure was bad. It comes in the winter when the fish move into the bays and rivers, when bank and pier fishermen and even small boat owners who are restricted on where they can fish have their best shot. You close the winter months like that and you might as well go and close the entire year.”

DMR has established a phone information line and an email address dedicated to speckled trout. Comments can be made by phone by dialing 1-844-SPECK 16 (844-773-2516) or by emailing speckinfo@dmr.ms.gov