Reviving Red Drum

Red DrumResearchers from the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences didn't catch just any fish in the net on the New River, just outside of Jacksonville. It’s a Red Drum, which just happen to be North Carolina’s State Fish. 

Red Drum used to be plentiful all around the state. Anecdotal reports show good years and average years for catches in the Red Drum fisheries along the Outer Banks, the lower Neuse River and the Pamlico Sound. That’s pretty natural. Some years are better than others. Nobody knows exactly why. The only point everyone agrees on is that in the late 1990s, after several years of near record catches of juvenile Red Drum, the data began to show that all was not well. The population was dropping.

Simply put, not enough young Red Drum were being allowed to grow into adulthood. For a Red Drum, that’s about five years old. Part of that could be blamed on Mother Nature. There were several huge fish kills of Red Drum that were caused by the water becoming colder than normal. But the primary problem was over-fishing. Too many very young fish were being caught, either by fishermen who were going after Red Drum or as a by-catch in the pursuit of other types of fish.

Letting fish “grow up” allows for enough fish to reproduce and keep the population at least stable, and possibly growing. Ideally, fisheries managers would like to see about 40% of what is called “escapement” of juvenile Red Drum.

It was only about 3% in the 1980s.

Measuring Red DrumBy 1998, facing a critical situation, the Marine Fisheries Commission approved regulations to insure that more juvenile Red Drum would reach adulthood and be protected once they got there. Recreational fishing quantities and catch sizes were restricted. Commercial fisherman faced multiple restrictions. There were so many limits, many fishermen simply gave up catching Red Drum because it was no longer profitable.

It has taken more than a decade, but it appears the regulations coupled with the Red Drum Fishery Management plan ARE restoring the population. Large schools of three-five year old Red Drum are being reported along the Outer Banks, and in the brackish waters of the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers. 

That’s the good news. However, many questions still remain. Even though it appears juveniles now have a better chance to reach adulthood and reproduce, there still is not enough knowledge of the population to know for sure. New research, partly funded by North Carolina Sea Grant, is shedding new light onto the mortality rates of the Red Drum population, which will help state fisheries managers set better catch limits. Fishermen and scientists both agree the fishing pressure on Red Drum isn’t going away and that more work needs to be done to understand the health of the Red Drum population so it can be managed in a way that stabilizes the population and keeps the fishing industry healthy. 

It would be a tragedy if North Carolina’s state fish couldn’t be found in the state’s waters.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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