The secret to catching red drum is to keep quiet, still and far enough away. Imagine trying to count the easily spooked fish.
But the drum, the "money fish," the most-sought-after Lowcountry catch, will be the next species to undergo a federal stock assessment that leaves anglers up and down the coast doubtfully shaking their heads. Estimated fish counts from the assessment are used to restrict how many of each species can be caught.
It's the barb edge in controversies over popular catches such as grouper and red snapper that now face some of the strictest catch limits. Anglers say there simply are more fish out there than the estimates say.
Anglers and regulators have a lot hanging on what this count will show. In South Carolina alone, the red drum fishery has been estimated to be worth $600 million per year.
The drum, also called redfish or spottail bass, is already thrashing around controversy over catch limits. They've been fished so relentlessly that as far back as 1981 S.C. Natural Resources began putting limits on the fish. By 2000, the survey numbers had fallen so alarmingly the limit was dropped from five to two fish per trip.
The catch improved, and last year angling groups pushed legislators to approve upping the catch to three per trip, even though researchers said it was too soon to tell if the long-lived fish had really staged a sustainable comeback.
Most people agree plenty of red drum are out there, but nobody can be sure for how long. State regulators have good counts of juvenile and catch-size, or young adult fish, but not the too-big-to-keep, breeding adults. Throwbacks, or discards of unkept fish, are considered a leading cause of death.
South Carolina members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission were among members who pushed for the new count along the 15 states fronting the Atlantic Ocean. The last count was in the late 1990s; a review was due.
"It's something we just have to do," said Robert Boyles, commission vice chairman and S.C. Natural Resources marine resources deputy director.
The man handling the assessment is confident that it will produce good numbers. Individual states that contribute data have been regularly making trawl counts and surveying catches.
"Like any survey, if you have a greater sample size, you have more reliability," said John Carmichael, South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council science and statistics manager. And the science used will be peer reviewed — worked over for flaws by an independent team of experts. The last survey went through only an internal review.
"It's a very rigorous process," Carmichael said. "It doesn't answer everybody's questions. There's always going to be something you would do differently next time, and there's always going to be somebody who says, that's not what I see in my backyard."
Scott Whitaker is director of the Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina, a lobby for recreational anglers. The association was among those pushing to increase the red drum catch.
"It's going to be interesting to see what the total assessment of the fish is," Whitaker said. He's confident researchers will do the best they can with the information they get, "but it's the best available science as opposed to the best possible science."
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