Preliminary Results of Gulf Reef Fish Studies

Biologists accompanied close to 300 charter and headboat fishing trips and tagged more than 15,000 fish during the first 18 months of the research.

Since the summer of 2009, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has conducted studies of the recreational fisheries for red snapper, gag, red grouper, and other reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers and for-hire recreational fishing vessels are helping researchers to collect information to evaluate the survival of released fish and the effectiveness of conservation measures, including gear requirements for circle hooks and venting tools.

Methods

FWC has partnered with recreational anglers and for-hire vessel operators in Florida, using several approaches to assess the success rates of catch-and-release fishing:

  • A year-long survey of licensed saltwater anglers. Each month, selected license holders received a survey in the mail. Participants reported when and where they fished for reef fish during the previous month.
  • A catch card to tally the red snapper caught and released during recreational fishing trips.  Anglers record the size category and hooking location for each red snapper they release.
  • At-sea observers. FWC biologists accompany passengers on charter fishing boats and headboats and collect information on types of gear used, where fish are hooked, handling methods such as dehooking and venting, and the size and condition of fish that are released.
  • A tag-recapture study as part of the at-sea observer program. Biologists tag snapper and grouper species, and information from fish that are recaptured by the public and reported to FWC will be used to evaluate the survival of fish released by recreational anglers. Tags are printed with a toll-free phone number for FWC's Angler Tag Return Hotline.  Anglers receive free T-shirts for reporting information about tagged fish they catch.

Results Through Fall 2010

Close to 300 charter and headboat fishing trips were surveyed in the at-sea observer program, which had 122 for-hire vessels participating in the Panhandle and 38 in the Tampa Bay area.  More than 15,000 red snapper and grouper of various species were tagged during the first 18 months of the study (Figure 1). Most grouper were tagged in the Tampa Bay area; most red snapper, in the Panhandle. Preliminary tag-return rates were within expected range, based on review of other published tag-recapture studies in the Gulf of Mexico (Table 1).

Figure 1. Reef fish tagged and recaptured June 2009-November 2010. Scamp were added after the survey had begun because of the numbers observed being released during sampled trips.

Figure 1 Reef fish tagged and recaptured June 2009-November 2010

Table 1. Preliminary tag return rates for this study versus return rates for comparable studies.

Species

Number of Tagged Fish

Percentage Recaptured

Percentage Recaptured in Comparable Studies

Red Snapper

6,359

6.0%

2.3% to 17.7%

Gag

1,796

10.1%

6.8% to 11.0%

Red Grouper

6,941

6.0%

8.5%

Scamp

265

4.2%

 

More than 200 red snapper catch cards have been returned with data on more than 4,500 fish. Preliminary results indicate that more than 90% of released fish were hooked in the lip as opposed to being hooked internally or "foul-hooked" externally (Table 2); 97.6% of respondents reported having used circle hooks. Approximately 50% of all red snapper released were above the legal size limit (Table 2).

Table 2. Preliminary results of red snapper catch card data from recreational fishing trips taken between June 2009 and November 2010, tallied by size and what part of the fish was hooked.

Fish Size

Hook Location (# of fish, % of total reported)

Totals

Lip/Mouth

Throat

Gill

Gut

Eye

External

≤10"

189

(4.2%)

12

(<1%)

0

(0%)

3

(<1%)

2

(<1%)

0

(0%)

206

(4.5%)

>10" and ≤12"

383

(8.4%)

34

(<1%)

4

(<1%)

8

(<1%)

0

(0%)

1

(<1%)

430

(9.5%)

>12"  and ≤14"

470

(10.3%)

34

(<1%)

0

(0%)

11

(<1%)

1

(<1%)

2

(<1%)

518

(11.4%)

>14" and ≤16"

889

(19.5%)

63

(1.4%)

8

(<1%)

26

(<1%)

1

(<1%)

4

(<1%)

991

(21.8%)

>16" (Legal)

2,269

(49.9%)

82

(1.8%)

10

(<1%)

36

(<1%)

0

(0%)

6

(<1%)

2,403

(52.8%)

Totals (% of samples)

4,200

(92.3%)

225

(4.9%)

22

(<1%)

84

(1.8%)

4

(<1%)

13

(<1%)

4,548

(100%)

The mail survey of licensed saltwater anglers was conducted for one year. Close to 48,000 surveys were mailed to licensed saltwater anglers, and nearly 4,000 people (less than 10%) returned completed surveys. Higher response rates are needed for this survey to be useful in estimating the number of people who participate in red snapper fishing.

Next Steps

More focus will be placed on distributing catch cards to anglers and increasing returns in 2011. The mail survey of licensed saltwater anglers has been discontinued. FWC will continue to tag snapper and grouper during trips on recreational fishing vessels and collect information from the public about recaptured fish.

With research funding through 2012, FWC scientists will evaluate data from the tagging study to assess the survival of these caught-and-released reef fish and the success of conservation measures, including the use of circle hooks and venting techniques. Knowledge of how survival relates to factors such as fish size, handling, and condition upon release will help researchers more accurately estimate release survival and better account for the impacts of recreational  fisheries.

circle hooks

State and federal regulations require the use of circle hooks when fishing for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

redsnappertag.jpg
An FWC biologist applies a tag to a small red snapper
caught by a recreational angler.

 

undersized red grouper is tagged and ready for release

An undersized red grouper is tagged and ready for release.



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