Last week, a joint project of the Coastal Conservation Association, Duke Energy and FWC released 10,000 juvenile redfish in Placida. The fish were raised at Duke’s Crystal River Mariculture Center hatchery, about 80 miles north of Tampa. This release was preceded by one of 2,000 juvenile and 30 adult redfish earlier this year.
While such releases are all well and good, some folks seem to think that they are going to save Charlotte Harbor’s fishery. They won’t. They can’t. They might help and probably won’t hurt, but there are a lot more pieces to this puzzle.
What happened to our redfish in the first place? Yes, we had some bad luck with red tide for a couple years, but the redfish shortage goes back farther than that. The reds we catch inshore are mostly kids that haven’t reached maturity yet. It takes them about three or four years for a redfish to go from hatching to upper-slot fish. I’ve been hearing complaints for about that long, so that means at least six years of reduced production. We can’t blame red tide for everything.
So did we catch too many? Maybe, but with a bag limit of one fish and many anglers practicing catch-and-release even when they could have been keeping them, it seems like a tough sell. Released fish sometimes die, but redfish are not trout — they’re much more durable.
What else might have a negative effect on our redfish numbers? Look at what these fish need to survive and grow. It’s pretty basic: Plenty of food, clean water, and places to hunt and stay safe from hunters. Reduce the availability of any of those things, and the number of redfish that can live in a given area will drop.
What do redfish eat? While small fish are on the menu, their main prey is invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp and marine worms. These creatures are most abundant in areas of healthy seagrass, so grass beds are crucial for redfish. Less seagrass, less redfish food, fewer redfish. Basic.
We have also been harvesting lots of potential redfish food. The last time you were out on the Harbor, how many times did you have to change course to avoid a crab trap float? I’ll bet it was more than once. How many crabs can we take before it affects the fish species that eat them? Ask a biologist. Never mind — the answer is “we don’t know because we haven’t studied it.” Same for shrimp, same for mullet.
I applaud anyone who is trying to help, and that’s what the CCA and Duke are trying to do. But if we really wanted to be serious about boosting redfish numbers, we’d be working to restore the habitat and prey base. As a side benefit, this would also greatly increase the numbers of pretty much every other species in our waters. Here are come things we could do:
Less nitrogen: We know that high levels of nitrogen in the water encourages algae growth, and algae often grows on top of seagrasses. Reducing the amount we release would be very helpful. While there are many sources, the single largest is from human waste. Sewers are better than septic tanks at preventing nitrogen release on site, but all that waste still goes somewhere and a lot of the nitrogen manages to end up in the water anyway. Composting and incinerating toilets would do a far better job of keeping that nitrogen out of the water.
Less phosphorus: Phosphate mining has been ongoing in the Peace River drainage for the past 140 years. In that time, numerous spills have brought huge amounts of acidic water and fine silt downriver into the Harbor, with catastrophic results. But mining has also raised the amount of phosphorus in the water. Nitrogen plus phosphorus is fertilizer, and fertilizer in the water almost always feeds algae. The mines provide jobs and important chemicals, but are they worth more than the damage they do to the environment? When we weigh their value against that of our waters and properties, it’s clear that mining has to go.
Cleaner water: Nothing cleans water better than filter-feeding mollusks such as oysters and clams. These animals used to be superabundant here, but overharvest and silting have reduced their numbers to a small fraction of what should be in the Harbor. Rebuilding oyster reefs would be a huge help in keeping our waters filtered and clean.
More habitat: Replanting seagrasses is difficult and very costly, so keeping what we have is key. One easily implemented way to do that would be keeping propeller boats off at least some of the more sensitive grassflats. Pole-and-troll zones, where outboard engines can’t be used, have proven themselves in other areas. I’m not suggesting we do that in the entire Harbor — access needs to be preserved. But done intelligently, pole-and-trolls could be an important part of fixing our issues.
More prey: Commercial fishing has a long history here. The first permanent European settlers were mullet fishermen. But we’ve become far too efficient in our ability to harvest aquatic life. Limits on the number of crab traps that can be deployed, and restricting fishermen to waters in and adjacent to their home counties, would do two things. First, they would reduce the amount harvested, leaving more for the fish to eat. Second, they would reduce supply, which would raise prices — allowing commercial fishermen to still make a living while not taking as much.
If all of these things could be done, there would be no need for hatcheries. Fish populations would explode. Charlotte Harbor’s fishery, which used to be truly world class but has declined significantly, would move back to being among the best of the best.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any of these things happening. What I see instead is drops going into the bucket as it drains from a hole punched in the bottom. While every drop helps, that bucket is still going to be empty sooner rather than later unless we can find ways to patch it up.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.