Paul Fafeita made a well-placed cast toward¬†the¬†red mangroves. After his soft-sided jig hit the water, he twitched it once or twice during a slow retrieve of his light-tackle spinning reel. About halfway back to the boat, in water only about 18 inches deep, a swirl boiled up where Fafeita’s jig had just skipped across a shallow pothole on the sandy bottom.
The line came tight. The gentle splash of a¬†square-edged tail indicated a spotted seatrout was on the hook.
It was one of a handful caught by Fafeita,¬†Andy Steinbergs and me¬†that late March morning near Vero Beach. We really didn’t have the right tide, but fishing around spoil islands,¬†over flats with scattered sea grass and along mangrove shorelines, we managed to put together a mixed bag of catches that included small trout, snook, ladyfish, jacks, a foul-hooked pinfish and believe it or not, a small barracuda. One¬†could tell it was going to be a good day of fishing later when the tide was right.
Since then, Fafeita and Andy Steinbergs have caught and released their fair share of trout in the waters around Vero Beach. Other anglers fishing the waters within 20 miles of the 17th Street Bridge have reported decent fishing for trout, too. But range farther south and north in the Indian River Lagoon, and signs indicate trout may be in trouble.¬†¬†
In some of Florida’s waters¬†‚ÄĒ¬†where trout catches were always considered a reliable target ‚ÄĒ¬†the economically important fish is being caught in alarmingly low numbers. Anglers say years of declining water quality coupled with devastating losses of sea grass habitat in Florida’s fragile and critical¬†estuaries have trout at a tipping point.
Help may be on the way.¬†But some recreational anglers worry, will it be enough to help trout rebound?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been assessing trout stocks for two years. During its meeting May 1-2 in Havana, near Tallahassee, FWC staff will recommend a reduction in harvest for recreational anglers in an effort to help trout stocks strengthen.
The proposed recreational daily bag limit per harvester reduction is from:
The northwest and southwest zones are¬†separated by the Pasco-Hernando county line. The northeast and southeast zones are separated by the Flagler-Volusia county line.
FWC¬†also will propose prohibiting:
Fishing guides from keeping a bag limit during a for-hire trip
Taking¬†trout over 20 inches in the southwest and southeast zones.¬†The current size limit statewide is¬†no less than 15 inches and only one larger than 20 inches.
In the northwest region only, FWC proposes reinstating a February closure.
No commercial fishing regulations are proposed.
If the board approves the rules, a¬†final public hearing will be at the July meeting in Stuart.¬†
Trout are somewhat unique in that they can be caught in the waters of all 36 of Florida’s coastal counties, but FWC manages them in four regional zones based on differences in their habitat and population.
FWC is aiming for a 35 percent “spawning potential ratio management target,” which¬†compares the effect of fishing on reproductive capability, but doesn’t factor in¬†environmental impacts. Trout are susceptible to localized declines because they do not move much between estuaries, if at all. Their life cycles are dependent upon aquatic vegetation, so harmful algae blooms and rapid changes in salinity can be problematic.¬†¬†
“Years ago, when there was still sea grass around Sailfish Point Flats,¬†I could catch 60 trout over six pounds over the course of¬†two months in April and¬†May,” said Capt. Mike Holliday, a Stuart fishing guide for over 30¬†years and author of the book, “Secrets for Catching Seatrout.” “All that sea grass is gone. There is no habitat for them. There are still a few fish around, but if I have to target trout, I have to go fish in Fort Pierce or Vero Beach.”
Holliday is one of many fishing guides who work the waters of the southern Indian River Lagoon in Martin and St. Lucie counties. Habitat loss for miles from where the St. Lucie River intersects with the lagoon has been a well-documented problem for years. But since 2013, the bottom of the lagoon in this region has been virtually devoid of sea grass.
Heavy Lake Okeechobee discharges in 2005, 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018 blanketed these areas with turbid, silt-laden waters for months. Winds and tides helped spread the negative effects linearly along the lagoon for up to 10 miles.
More: Recording spotted sea trout’s mating calls¬†
“In the wintertime, trout¬†used to be our day savers,” Holliday said. “If other fishing was slow, you could go trout fishing and save your day. Now,¬†I haven‚Äôt caught a dozen trout in a day in probably seven years.”
Holliday said the loss of grass, wherever it has happened, impacts the entire food web.
“When you don‚Äôt have the grass to support the organisms that are part of the food web, you don‚Äôt have the grass to support the predators in the food web,” Holliday said. “The¬†diet of a large trout is different than a juvenile trout. Where they are small, about¬†80 percent of their diet¬†is shrimp and the rest is finfish. But when they¬†reach about 15 inches, it flip flops, and 80 percent of their diet¬†is finfish and 20 percent is shrimp.”
But with no grass, there are no trout.
“My experience is that the¬†schoolie-sized smaller trout like dense grass,” Holliday said, “whereas the larger fish like grass with sandy potholes. We don‚Äôt have either of them now.”
“I’m happy to see the FWC is taking steps, but they are guarded steps,” said Capt. Billy Rotne of Tailhunter charters in New Smyrna Beach, who guides most of his clients to memorable trout, redfish and black drum catches on the waters of the Mosquito Lagoon. “There is copious evidence that trout are in a state of major decline.”
Plummeting catch numbers are being observed in estuaries like the Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River Lagoon, Banana River Lagoon, Florida Bay, Biscayne Bay¬†and the Southwest Florida coast ‚ÄĒ¬†all of which have had a recent history of serious water quality problems, harmful algae blooms, red tides, brown tides and blue-green cyanobacteria.
The FWC’s science is not in line with some angler’s observations, Rotne said.
“Science is always important,” Rotne said, “but you don’t have to be a scientist to know an ‘Oh, crap!’ moment when it’s going on.”
Rotne said trout age should be a factor in spots like the Mosquito Lagoon, which is in the northern end of the southeast management region.
More: Ed Killer: Is the Indian River Lagoon nearly out of trout?
“Larger trout live to about 7-8 years and it has been 7-8 years since we have been in this cycle of harmful algae blooms,” he said. “Big breeder-sized trout now were born during the period where our sea grass habitat has been in serious decline.”
Rotne supports reduced¬†bag limits, but wants even stricter measures.
“Even if they stopped harvest altogether, it would not solve the problem with the population crashing,” he said. “In recent meetings I have been a part of, it seems to me that many guides in my area would support making trout a catch-and-release fishery only, at least for the time being.”
Along the Southwest Florida coast, that decision has already been made. The historic effects of last year’s¬†red tide have caused the FWC to take a rare action and suspend harvest of key fishing targets to allow for stocks to rebound.
The red tide, which began in November 2017 along the coasts of Lee and Collier counties, persisted throughout the region until February 2019. At its greatest spread, it impacted the Gulf Coast from Pasco County to Gordon Pass in Collier County.
In August and September,¬†FWC made snook and redfish catch-and-release only throughout the range where red tide fish kills occurred. They were extended through May 10 to allow researchers time to assess the impacts. In February. spotted seatrout larger than 20 inches were¬†added to the list as catch-and-release only.
FWC staff will recommend making spotted seatrout of all sizes catch-and-release only and will prohibit commercial harvest for one year for the area from Pasco-Hernando county line to Gordon Pass in Collier County. Snook and redfish also will be catch-and-release only for one year, if the measure is approved.
Anglers question FWC’s claim that they are responsible for 98 percent of the trout harvest because the agency increased the commercial trip limit to 75 fish per harvester in 2012.
Statewide commercial landing data suggests trout are in serious trouble. The¬†combined catch dropped¬†from 79,274 pounds in 2012 to a low of 21,926 pounds in 2017. Trout, which earns about $2.50 to $3 per pound for each fisherman, saw its estimated value plummet from $174,087 to $62,801 during that time.
Fishing success per commercial fisherman dropped, too. In 2011, 76,252 pounds were caught during 1,540 fishing trips, or¬†an average of 49.5 pounds per trip. By 2017, that number had fallen to 18.5 pounds per trip during 1,184 trips.
Looking at local fisheries, the drop-offs have been even more alarming. In an East Coast region combining Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Brevard and Volusia counties, the catch went from 54,501 pounds in 2012 to 9,727 pounds in 2017, or a catch decline of 82 percent. In the Southwest Florida counties of Lee and Charlotte, the catch dropped off from 11,199 pounds in 2012 to just 417 pounds in 2018, or a 96 percent collapse.
The Northwest Florida counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Bay, it has been more stable, but is still indicative of trouble. In 2012, fishers combined to catch and sell 2,681 pounds compared to 1,936 pounds in 2017, or 28 percent.¬†¬†
Holliday said he is concerned many anglers have forgotten how good the¬†trout fishing once was in some parts of Florida, especially the Indian River Lagoon.
“What happens when we go¬†10, 15, 20 years like this?” Holliday asked. “Then this kind of¬†becomes the new norm. People will get used to not catching trout, which is a shame because we¬†used to be able to catch trout all over this place.”
Holliday would support a prohibition on taking all trout larger than 20 inches.
“I¬†discourage my clients to take any trout over 20 inches anyway for two reasons,” he said. “The big trout are genetically superior and I want those genetics in my river. But almost every one of them has worms anyway, and they’re mushy.”
Holliday, Rotne and others¬†hope this isn’t the last we see of this important fish.
Dates: May 1-2
Time:¬†8:30 a.m. each day
Location:¬†Florida Public Safety Institute,¬†85 Academy Drive,¬†Havana
Agenda items: Harvest moratorium for snook, trout and redfish in Southwest Florida waters; Recreational fishing regulations for spotted seatrout; Commercial Spanish mackerel regulations and recreational scallop seasons; Discuss coral reefs and captive wildlife.