Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

Report Indicates Trouble For Gray Trout Stock
June 29, 2005

Release from:
Patricia Smith
The Daily News (Jacksonville, North Carolina)

RALEIGH - Four years after state fisheries officials declared gray trout stocks in good shape, the fish is back in the frying pan.

The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries released its annual stock status report Tuesday listing weakfish or gray trout as an overfished species - and scientists aren't sure why.

Overfished is a category, not a description of the problem. In 2004, commercial fishermen had the lowest weakfish landings on record, said Louis Daniel, a DMF assistant fisheries director. Dockside sales declined from 4 million pounds in 1996 to 685,000 pounds in 2004.

"What's really confounding in this whole thing is the recreational catch in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia has really been on the increase," Daniel told the Marine Fisheries Commission at its meeting in Raleigh.

Angler catches in North Carolina increased from 75,968 pounds in 1996 to 280,773 pounds in 2004, catapulting the Tar Heel state to No. 1 on the Atlantic Coast in recreational weakfish catches.

"We really don't have a good explanation why the recreational catches south of Hatteras are going up and all the other catches are going down," Daniel said.

A technical committee to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is investigating whether environmental factors such as ecosystem effects, predation or competition with other fish species is playing a role in gray trout populations.

MFC member Bradley Styron said he thinks higher numbers of heavily regulated fish like striped bass, tuna and dog sharks are impacting weakfish populations.

"The management measures are not working like you want them to work," Styron said. "You're saving dogfish to the detriment of trout."

Commission member B.J. Copeland noted that ocean water temperatures for the past few years have been cooler inside the Gulf Stream during the spring.

"That may have pushed them south," Copeland said.

Daniel said he thinks it may be a sign that regulatory actions instituted in the mid-1990s in the south Atlantic may have impacted the health of the fishery more so than actions taken in the north Atlantic.

While more northern states implemented season closures and size limits, North Carolina banned all flynet fishing south of Cape Hatteras and began requiring bycatch reduction devices in shrimp trawls.

"Fishermen couldn't make up for the closures south of Hatteras," Daniel said.

Daniel said he is researching his theory to see if there is scientific justification for it. If there is, it might help Tar Heel fishermen south of Cape Hatteras avoid even stricter regulations as the ASMFC decides what to do about the declining fish stocks, he said.

"That still doesn't bode very well for the guys north of Hatteras," Daniel said.

The ASMFC technical committee has recommended a 50-percent reduction in weakfish harvests coastwide, Daniel said.

In other changes to the state's marine fisheries stock status report this year, summer flounder dropped from viable to a species of concern; and both shark (considered overfished in 2004) and striped mullet (a species of concern last year) were upgraded from to recovering.