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June 2012

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Rebounding Flounder

Comprehensive effort brings the flatfish back from the edge of obscurity.

By David Sikes

Former rodeo rider Danny Adams II held securely to the boat’s bucking bow with a taut line wrapped twice around his fist as he barked the names of landmarks to guide his father at the wheel.

I watched with wide eyes as a number of blurry shapes came into focus and faded as quickly while the intrepid young Adams motioned with his free hand the directions his father should steer. Duck blinds didn’t become duck blinds in my vision until they were almost near enough to touch.

I strained in vain to see more clearly while I struggled to conceal my trepidation to my boat mates, but surely I was betrayed by my white-knuckled grip on the boat’s center console. Maybe they wouldn’t notice the fear in my eyes, mercifully masked by the tiny water droplets covering the lenses of my glasses.

Together the veteran Rockport guide and his namesake son skillfully steered their vintage Majek skiff onward, almost blindly, into the unknown. Actually, our course from Goose Island State Park into Aransas Bay that foggy November morning was mostly unknown only to me.

Flounder fishing on the coast.

The year was 1998, and this was my inaugural adventure as the outdoors columnist for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times newspaper. At the request of my predecessor on the outdoors desk, the Adamses had graciously agreed to help me with a flounder story — a story that poor visibility threatened to derail.

My anxiety was somewhat lessened that day by the presence of veteran Caller-Times photographer George Gongora, who was there with his Nikon to make sure my first offering would be well-documented on 35mm film.
The fog eventually lifted that morning along with my spirits, allowing us to catch enough flatfish for a newspaper article and photos. I could not have predicted that 13 years would pass before another rod and reel flounder story appeared in the Caller-Times.

This was not for lack of trying.

For more than a decade after 1998, flounder would become an incidental catch for anglers in the Coastal Bend and parts southward. Nighttime giggers continued to enjoy some level of success throughout this period, mostly when flounder were concentrated and vulnerable during their annual spring and fall parades to and from the Gulf.

But rod and reel success had become cause for celebration or secrecy around Corpus Christi and Rockport, where flatfish had once flourished. For old-timers, flounder had become fabled characters in “remember when” stories that always included lament for the good ol’ days when anglers caught flounder intentionally or not.

During the 1990s and 2000s, optimism began to wane among anglers hoping for a resurgence of the Texas flounder population.

Speculation to explain the demise ranged from blaming shrimpers with their indiscriminate nets and commercial giggers with their lights and tridents to pointing fingers at silted-in Gulf passes such as Cedar Bayou and limited freshwater inflow from dammed rivers.

Biologists were slow to blame without proof, though Larry McKinney, then director of Coastal Fisheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, suggested that any effort to establish a flounder restocking program should be tied to curbing incidental catches inherent in shrimping practices at the time.

Meanwhile, those same biologists reluctant to voice a cause-and-effect theory were busy gathering data that proved there was a serious problem with the flounder population. On paper, the decline was steady and undeniable based on state gill-net surveys, which provided evidence that annual recreational and commercial harvests had gone from 700,000 in the late 1980s to fewer than 150,000 in 2007, when the population bottomed out.

Two years later, TPWD reacted with sweeping changes to flounder regulations. The department reduced the recreational bag limit from 10 fish daily to five. Commercial giggers were restricted to 30 fish per night rather than the previous 60. The new rules further prohibited recreational and commercial gigging during peak migration in November. Rod and reel anglers still were allowed to keep two flounder per day during November.

Coupled with these changes, the unpredictable Texas weather provided help in 2008 when a chilly winter boosted the spawning success of the flounder population. The result has been remarkable, prompting some people to compare it with the historic recovery of redfish in the 1980s after TPWD outlawed gill-netting and declared the popular species a game fish.

Such comparisons might be premature, but the turnaround is no less impressive. Recent gill-net surveys reveal a flounder population at its highest since 1998. Based on the department’s twice-annual gill-net sampling, the coastal flounder population is double what it was just three years ago and five times higher than it was in 2007.

Chester Moore, one of the state's most passionate flounder advocates, brings in a healthy flounder from the saline waters of Sabine Lake.

A closer look at the dynamics and circumstances that led to the recovery reveals this was not an overnight occurrence but rather a process. Outdoors writer and radio personality Chester Moore of Orange knows this better than most. Moore is one of the state’s most vocal flounder champions, campaigning for flounder reform for more than a decade through his professional and volunteer work.

Moore refers to flounder as “the fish of the people” because of its easy access from shorelines, passes and piers. He characterizes the sequence of events that gave flounder back to the people as a perfect storm created by angler interest, research, funding and timely regulation changes.

Even before the population cratered, TPWD biologists were collecting research specimens along the coast through the department’s Texas Gulf Coast Roundup events. This program invited anglers to donate live trout, redfish, flounder and other species for research. For many, this was an introduction to the department’s Coastal Fisheries Division. The program also provided Moore an opportunity to establish himself as a valuable ally at the newly opened Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, where he lobbied for increased flounder research. At the time, TPWD hatcheries were releasing millions of spotted seatrout and redfish into Texas bays.

By comparison at the time, species such as croaker, tarpon and flounder received little attention.

On another front, the department began to take steps to reduce the impact of bay shrimping on juvenile flounder. By 2002, devices to cut down on incidental catches, known as bycatch, were mandatory on trawlers, and the state, with the help of several conservation organizations, had begun a program that included buying and retiring bay trawler licenses. At the time, there were 3,200 bay shrimping licenses issued. Nobody is certain how many of these were active. Since then, 57 percent of the state’s bay/bait shrimping licenses have been retired. TPWD Coastal Fisheries Director Robin Riechers estimates this effort has reduced bycatch by 40 percent since 1996.

Soon the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and UT’s Fisheries and Mariculture Laboratory in Port Aransas began taking a closer look at flounder as a possible candidate for captive breeding, a precursor to any stocking program. Fisheries biologist Joan Holt’s research into captive breeding and survivability of southern flounder included studies of how temperatures affect newborns, flounder’s dependence on fresh water and the optimum habitat during early stages of the flounder’s life cycle. Her work led to a fledgling stocking program that ultimately involved individuals, academia, conservation organizations and dedicated state biologists.

Holt’s partnership with TPWD hatchery biologists resulted in the first experimental release of flounder into Aransas Bay in 2006. Much of this research would not have been possible without funding assistance from the Coastal Conservation Associ­ation Texas, which donated $700,000 that year to the Marine Science Institute for a 3,000-square-foot facility designed to grow and study larval stages of flounder and other species.

Since then, CCA Texas has given more than $100,000 in additional funding to TPWD’s premier flounder effort at Sea Center Texas. CCA’s generosity was complemented by that of a Corpus Christi-based organization called Saltwater-fisheries Enhance­ment Association, which contributed cash and in-kind flounder assistance totaling about $300,000 toward Holt’s research in Port Aransas and to the CCA Marine Development Center run by TPWD in Corpus Christi.

The stocking program is young but growing. Since 2006, TPWD has released 20,323 inch-long fingerlings into Sabine Lake, Aransas Bay and Galveston Bay. Much of the future success of the program will rely on what’s happening with the department’s stock enhancement at Sea Center Texas and at the Perry R. Bass Marine Fisheries Research Station and the CCA Marine Devel­opment Center.

Shane Bonnot, hatchery biologist at Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, looks over one of several flounder brood stock tanks where fertilized eggs will be recovered.

Sea Center staffers rely on the two decades of institutional experience that makes Texas the leader in mariculture and fish stocking technology. But raising flounder is very different from producing and preparing redfish and trout for release, says David Abrego, director of Sea Center Texas.

Abrego says the process is labor-intensive and demands more attention to detail than required by other species. To heighten spawning success in tanks, Sea Center biologists originally had to manually manipulate flounder to release eggs and milt, and then mix the two in a confined container for optimum fertilization. More recently, the flounder have been more likely to spawn successfully on their own.

Until recently, nobody knew how sensitive tiny flounder can be to temperature. Tanks must be maintained at a range of 62.6 to 66.2 degrees for larvae to survive. And if they do survive, hatchery workers must periodically separate the fry by size to prevent the faster-growing fish from eating their smaller counterparts. If all goes well after 75 days of nurturing, the fingerlings are ready for release.

The program made remarkable progress. With each success, Chester Moore was there, cheering the effort. The first flounder release of fingerlings from Sea Center Texas came in 2009. Moore’s 3-year-old daughter, Faith, used a small dip net in a ceremonial release that day.
That same year, TPWD decided the time was right to propose regulation changes. When the department took this message on the road, attendance at public meetings proved that Texas anglers agreed. The public was ready to save the quirky flatfish with the funny shape.

While some people may have denied there was a problem, a prominent voice rose from commercial giggers of the Coastal Bend. These longtime fishermen came with cautionary tales of a fishery in peril, calling for a stop to the wholesale harvest of flounder during the fall run.

Department biologists told the crowds that a November ban on gigging would boost the flounder population by 54 percent after four years. Unless something was done, they said, flounder would continue sliding into obscurity as a viable Texas species. Survey data showed that the population had fallen to nearly half the 1990s level. Over­whelmingly, the public favored changes in the regulations.

The latest gill-net surveys reveal that all Texas bays are showing a boost in flounder numbers, according to Mark Fisher, TPWD Coastal Fisheries science director. Most bays have doubled their flounder numbers from the previous year. Last fall’s surveys show a record high for Aransas Bay. Galveston Bay and Sabine Lake posted the second-highest flounder numbers on record for those bays. Flatfish tallies from the West Matagorda Bay and Aransas Bay fall gill-net surveys were six and 11 times higher respectively than the results from the fall of 2007, when the population was at its lowest.

Anecdotally, recreational anglers along the middle and lower coasts report impressive catches of flatfish today where flounder catches had become rare for at least a decade. Even the normally flatfish-stingy Laguna Madre is producing surprising numbers of flounder for casual anglers.

The department’s survey results bear this out with about a 40 percent improvement in numbers for the Upper and Lower Laguna Madre, located at the southernmost reach of the flounder’s range. In 2007, dozens of state-set gill nets in spring captured no flounder in the Lower Laguna Madre. And not a single flatfish was entered in the 2007 Texas Inter­national Fishing Tournament, the region’s biggest fishing competition.

“Angler catches have been very good,” Fisher says. “And the largest flounder are coming from the Upper and Lower Lagunas. The fish are averaging 17 inches, and we’ve seen several 24-inch fish. A lot more trips are returning with flounder.”

Today, as a result of the flounder surge from a decade-long, comprehensive effort, the Texas Slam — the coveted and elusive trifecta of bay fishing glory involving a single-day catch of a trout, redfish and flounder — may also have been snatched from the grasp of obscurity.

 


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