Benefits of the Red Drum Fishery

Benefits of the Red Drum Fishery

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Red Drum populations along the east coast and gulf coast of the United States, have drastically diminished over the past thirty years. The cause of the drop in numbers of this beautiful fish is primarily due to the overfishing from both recreational and commercial fishermen. Federal and State governments have implemented measures in to prevent this fish from being targeted, and to make sure that the population numbers increase. Not only is this fish important for the fisheries in which they thrive, but they also contribute to the biodiversity of a number of different ecosystems.

The Red Drum (Scianops Ocellatus) gets their name from the drumming sound they make. [3] Most of these fish, depending on where they are caught, have an orange color to them and typically have at least one black spot on their tail. Depending on where you are at, red drum are also called redfish, channel bass, spottail, red bass, and reds. [3] Red drum have been caught as far north as Massachusetts, though they typically don’t migrate that far north. In fact, the Chesapeake Bay is normally the farthest north that they can be found, and they are caught as far south—in the United States—as the gulf coast of Texas. [1]
Red drum spawn between late summer and fall. Females lay their eggs in estuaries and inlets during the night. A single female can produce up to two million eggs per season. The eggs will then hatch anywhere from 24-36 hours after being spawned. As the fish matures, the area in which it lives will change, as will its feeding habits. A male is considered to be mature once it reaches anywhere between 20-28 inches. By this time, the fish is between one and four years of age. Females are considered to be mature when they are between 31-36 inches. A female between these lengths is typically between three-six years old. Red drum can grow upwards of 60-inches, which equates to a 90-pound fish. [1]

As a juvenile, red drum eat zooplankton and invertebrates such as crabs and shrimp. A juvenile will spend the first part of its life in estuarial waters, but when they get older they typically move towards the ocean. When red drum move to the ocean, their feeding habits change slightly, to satisfy their hunger. Not only will they eat zooplankton, but they also begin to target larger invertebrates as well as fish. [2]

The red drum fishery encompasses both recreational and commercial methods.

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Commercial records show that red drum have been reported since the 1880s, but the fishery was never prevalent until the 1980s. Ever since the 1980s, the fishery has declined. [2] “High levels of fishing on Red Drum in the 1980s led to the closure of the Red Drum fishery in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico in 1987 and of the Atlantic in 1990. Therefore, fishing for Red Drum is only allowed in state waters.”[3] Each state’s government regulates the state waters, and restrictions vary state-to-state. For example, in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, commercial fishing for red drum is strictly prohibited. Mississippi is the only state along the gulf coast that allows the commercial fishing of red drum, and there is a 35,000-ton limit. [3] Between 2001 and 2010, the average commercial catch of red drum was 74 metric tons. 90-percent of the catch was from commercial fishermen working the waters off of North Carolina, using gill nets. [3] Though it is illegal to target red drum directly, they were caught and recorded as by catch while fishing for southern flounder. [3] North Carolina does not restrict the recording of red drum as by catch, but limits are in place to reduce the amount of by catch. For example, there is an annual limit of 250,000 tons that can be caught. Between September 1 and April 30, the commercial fishermen are allowed to claim 150,000 tons. The remaining 100,000 tons can be claimed between May 1 and August 30. There is also a 7 fish trip limit in place to help keep these numbers down. [3] Commercial fisheries from New Jersey to Virginia, as well as Georgia limit the harvesting and sale of red drum to the same limits as recreational fishing. [2]

The recreational numbers of red drum caught, far exceed the commercial numbers. In the 80’s, the gulf and Atlantic red drum fishery was listed as overfished. In 1984, the harvest peaked at 2.1 million pounds. [2] Since 1988, the harvest has fluctuated between 800,000 pounds and 2.1 million pounds. [2] In 2012, the harvest was recorded at 1.7 million pounds, which was a 22-percent increase from the previous 10-year average. [2] Fishermen typically target the smaller red drum, also known as puppy drum, which can be caught in estuaries. Those looking to target the larger fish would need to go out to barrier islands, like the Outer Banks.

Regulation of red drum in state waters is conducted by two different organizations. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates the state waters of those facing the Atlantic Ocean. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council manages those states that face the Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages the fishery through a red drum fishery management plan. [2] This plan requires states to maintain the existing commercial regulations. It also makes sure that the states “implement recreational creel and size limits to achieve fishing mortality rates.”[2] A harvest moratorium and Presidential Executive Order, enacted in 2007, prevents any harvest or sale of red drum from federal waters.”[2] In 2013, an addendum was added that would look into habitat concerns such as limitations of sustainability and recovery. The addendum will also investigate threats to the habitat, seek to increase the knowledge base about red drum, and aid in the protection of red drum habitats. [2]

There are a number of methods that can be used to protect the red drum fish. Currently, states set size limits on red drum. The minimum size of a red drum is typically between 14-20 inches. The maximum size is between 23-27 inches. [2] Any fish that is caught either below the minimum or above the maximum must be released. In recent years, states have setup areas of protection in the inshore nursery areas. These protected areas help with the success rate of spawning.

In 2001, Science Magazine published the results of a study that dealt with adjacent fisheries benefiting from fishing reserves. Reserves are areas that are closed off to fishing. Closing off areas to become reserves could serve a dual purpose. [1] One purpose would be to conserve fish and allow their populations to thrive. The other purpose would be for fishery management. Closing off an area would allow fishery enhancement in adjacent waters, though the evidence was sparse. [1]

Setting up reserves could produce more fish as well as larger fish. The protected species within the reserve will be able to produce more offspring, potentially, because there would be an increase in egg output. [1] The egg output would then supply adjacent fisheries with new fish, because the currents would transport them there. There is also a theory behind this that the spill over of fish into the adjacent fisheries would be density driven. [1] If the fish have no place else to go, the fish will have to spill out of the reserve and into the adjacent fisheries. The thinking was also that the setup of reserves would lead to an increase of biomass and abundance, which would lead to biodiversity. [1]

The first reserve that was setup for the study was on an island in the Caribbean called St. Lucia. The area was named the Soufriere Marine Management Area, and was created in 1995. [1] The Soufriere Marine Management Area was setup on the south west coast of St. Lucia, and took up 11 km of coast. [1] In the area, they setup five marine reserves. 35-percent of the reserves were in coral reef areas and were designed to rehabilitate the reef fishery. [1]
As soon as the areas were setup, the populations rapidly increased visually. The combined biomass of five commercially important fish tripled. The adjacent water saw a doubling of the biomass of the same fish. [1] This all took place in three years.

The Soufriere Marine Management Areas was studied for two-five month periods. The first period was between 1995 and 1996, and the second period was between 2000 and 2001. The scientists used two trap-fishing methods. [1] One method used small drop and lift traps that were baited and soaked for one to two hours. The other method utilized large traps that were soaked over night. The two trap methods accounted for more than 70-percent of the fish caught. [1] The fishing effort remained steady during the two periods. Between 1995 and 1996, they had 22 full time fishermen and between 2000 and 2001 they had 20 full time fishermen. [1] Figure 3 shows the increase between the periods for both the large traps and small traps. The small traps accounted for an increase in 80 percent catch per trap, and the large traps accounted for a 36 percent catch per trap. [1] Figure 2 shows the increase in biomass that was created because of the reserves. There is a decline in the graph that was possibly created when Hurricane Lenny struck the area in 1999. [1]

The other area that was observed for the study was the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is located near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was setup as a security measure when Kennedy Space Center opened. [1] Prior to being closed off, the area was a huge recreational fishery. [1] This is an example of an area that was not setup to replenish fish populations, but ended up doing so indirectly.
The long established reserve was predicted to supply adjacent waters with trophy sized fish due to spill over. The International Gaming Commission registers world record sized fish based on gender of fisher, rod type and line strength. [1] The IGFA was tracking this data already, and between 1939 and 1999 the area accounted for 54-percent of the 64 records of red drum. [1] The examination of world record catches within proximity of the Merritt Island would allow the scientists to find out if the adjacent waters were in fact being fed fish from the reserve. This area only accounts for 13-percent of the Florida coast. [1]

If the reserves feed to the adjacent waters, it would be expected that the frequency of world record catch would increase over time. [1] Figure 4 shows the data pertaining to when world record fish were being caught in adjacent waters. The threshold point is the point when trophy sized fish were beginning to be supplied to the adjacent waters. [1] The study suggests that the time that red drum crossed over the threshold was linked to longevity. [1] The red drum crossed that threshold after 27 years, and the longevity of red drum is 35 years. [1] There is a steep increase in record fish in 1980. This rapid increase is due to the IGFA adding line criteria to world record catches. [1] It should be noted that by 1985, the red drum did not show any burst of new records, but this has changed and they are now accumulating rapidly. Most of the records for red drum were caught in the adjacent waters of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. [1]

In conclusion, the red drum fishery provides a number of things to both fishermen and the environment. For fishermen, the fishery provides a relatively tasty fish that can be blackened or fried. The larger fish provide a fight from the surf that is incomparable to any other fish, from experience. In regards to the environment, red drum provides a great deal of biodiversity. The smaller red drum feed on small marine animal and the larger feed on larger marine animals. The drum themselves provide food to larger fish and mammals that feed on them. Through experiment, scientists are able to come up with ways to protect this important species of fish. According to the study provided, reserves allow the populations to increase, which will eventually spill over into adjacent waters.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

1 Callum M. Roberts, James A. Bohnsack, Fiona Gell, Julie P. Hawkins, and Renata Goodridge (2001) Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries. Science. 294, 1920-1923

2, (2014). species - Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 May. 2014].

3, (2012). RED DRUM Sciaenops ocellatus Sometimes known as Redfish ... [PDF] Available at:

Works Cited

1 Callum M. Roberts, James A. Bohnsack, Fiona Gell, Julie P. Hawkins, and Renata Goodridge (2001) Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries. Science. 294, 1920-1923

2, (2014). species - Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 May. 2014].

3, (2012). RED DRUM Sciaenops ocellatus Sometimes known as Redfish ... [PDF] Available at:

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