After learning the speckled trout quota for the entire year had been met, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources announced last week that the second phase of the commercial speck season would not open Friday (June 1) as scheduled.
MDMR announced the closure in a press release that stated no other information would be available until its investigation into the under-reporting of catch was complete, and that the season will remain closed until further notice.
According to the agency, Mississippi has two commercial speckled trout seasons, Feb. 1-May 31 and June 1-Oct. 31. The limit is 25,000 pounds per season, or a total annual harvest quota of 50,000 pounds.
The agency discovered that due to under-reporting, the annual quota has been met before the May 31 end of the first season, and launched an investigation into the under-reporting.
Speckled trout populations along the Mississippi Gulf Coast have been a topic of concern with fisheries managers at MDMR, which enacted stiffer regulations on recreational fishermen in 2017. The minimum size limit was raised from 13 to 15 inches, and thus far in 2018, the catch has been phenomenal, according to many anglers.
“Some of the best numbers and biggest trout we’ve seen in years around our islands and on our reefs,” said guide Sonny Schindler of Bay St. Louis. “You talk to anybody, guides or just private boat owners, and you will hear the same story. The trout are rebounding and the fishing is outstanding.
“How much of that is due to the weather or other natural factors and how much is the mandatory release of more under-sized fish, I can’t say. But, whatever it is, it’s working.”
Earlier this year, MDMR’s fin-fish bureau director Matt Hill said it would be three to five years before biologists expected to see any impact from the regulation change, but that early reports were encouraging.
“Our first year’s data is all boots on the ground stuff, talking to fishermen,” Hill said. “It appears we had an excellent harvest. The poundage was down, but that was expected with a two-inch change in the (minimum length) regulation.
“We definitely had a positive response to the change. We did it the right way. We went through the process, explained it and did a lot of outreach. We had a good buy-in on the front end and that helped.”
Mother Nature likely played the biggest hand. Mississippi’s coastal waters saw two good spawning classes in 2014 and 2015 that were moving through the population.
“Those strong year classes held up the fishery,” Hill said. “Those were years when there was an opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway (from Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans). It helps push the spotted sea trout out of their preferred range in Louisiana to Mississippi water. When you get an influx like that (before the spawn), it brings us fish. It helps.”
The Bonnet Carré Spillway was opened again in early March this year to alleviate floodwaters coming down the Mississippi River. The diversion into Pontchartrain pushes fresh water through the lake and out the mouth of the Pearl River into the western edges of the Mississippi Sound and the Biloxi Marsh, which is in Louisiana.
“We will get that influx again this year,” Hill said. “The regulation change was needed, but it helps us to get lucky. The timing of the spillway openings has helped us.”
Apparently it also helped commercial fishermen; to what extent is still to be determined.
The timing of the announcement of under-reporting was unsettling to some fishermen, since the red snapper season opened last weekend. In-fighting over the management of that fish between recreational anglers, for-hire charter boats and commercial fishermen has centered on how harvest rates and population estimates have been determined by federal officials.
This year, an agreement between federal officials and agencies of the five gulf coast states that created more recreational opportunities also shifted the accounting of harvests from the federal agencies to the states.
“While the speck accounting could be unsettling, it is also a sign that when the state does find a problem, it is in the best position to react quickly and handle the matter,” said Tom Gordon, a recreational trout and snapper fisherman from Biloxi. “I have always said and still believe that the management of the fishery is best left to the individual states.”