Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Regulations Committee Meeting

August 23, 2006

Commission Hearing Room
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex
4200 Smith School Road
Austin, TX 78744

BE IT REMEMBERED, that heretofore on the 23rd day of August, 2006, there came on to be heard matters under the regulatory authority of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, in the Commission Hearing Room of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Headquarters Complex, to wit:

APPEARANCES:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION:

THE TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT:

P R O C E E D I N G S

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: All right. I call the Regulations Committee to order at 10:50. The first order of business is the approval of previous committee meeting's minutes that have been distributed. Motion for approval?

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: So moved.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: Second.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Moved by Ramos. Second by Holmes. All in favor, say Aye.

(A chorus of ayes.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Any opposed?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Hearing none, the motion carries.

Up first is Item 1, Land and Water Plan Update, Bob?

MR. COOK: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. To be brief, we are publishing three items in the Texas Register that will be coming back to you in November. We want to go out and do some scoping on some of these issues. Very briefly, it's some adjustments to the Falconry Apprentice Permit. Also, another one in reference to Offshore Mariculture Industry, to begin setting the feasibility of this fishery in Texas waters, where people are raising fish in confined areas in Texas waters. That's become an issue. We want to get out and study that some. Finally, a rule proposal that will allow private citizens' organizations and corporations to participate in our Artificial Reef Program more directly. So we'll be publishing those in the Register, doing some scoping, doing some, you know, feeling what's going on out there, and we'll bring those back to you for your consideration at the November Commission meeting.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Okay, good. Thank you, Bob.

Item 2 Spotted Seatrout, Larry McKinney, make your presentation.

DR. McKINNEY: Mr. Chairman and members, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this topic that we'll be working on. By brief introduction, Randy Blankenship, who is our ecosystem leader for the Lower Laguna Madre will make the presentation. By introduction, just to give you a view of where we go with this, this is an issue that every year I meet in early summer with my Fisheries Management staff to talk about what regulations proposals might be coming forward to you all for consideration in a year.

Over the last several years, as long as two years ago, this particular issue came up and we started taking a look at, this is what we should do about it. Certainly, in the last year, it has gotten a lot of attention up and down the coast, particularly in that lower area of the Laguna Madre. So I'd like for Randy to give you a briefing of what we're doing, and what we're looking at in those areas, and some options we're considering, to get your input and review. So, Randy, with that, please go ahead.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Thank you. For the record, my name is Randy Blankenship. I'm the Lower Laguna Madre Ecosystem Leader for the Coastal Fisheries Division in Brownsville. I'm here to present information and recent trends in the Lower Laguna Madre Spotted Seatrout Fishery that are concerning and may be addressed through a regional approach to fishery management. The Lower Laguna Madre is a unique bay system. It's shallow, has low freshwater inflow and high salinities. It also has extensive seagrasses, with about 185 square miles of seagrass coverage in the bay, more than any other bay system in Texas. It is a very productive bay on the margin of the tropical climate existing to the south. As a result of these characteristics, several interesting species may be found more frequently in the Lower Laguna Madre than in more northern bays such as Snook, Florida Pompano, Permit, Barracuda, and others.

As reported in our fishing report to you earlier this year, trends in Red Drum gill net catch rates have been consistently high and near record levels for the past three years. Several other important species such as Black Drum, Sheepshead, Penaeid Shrimp, Pinfish, Mullet, and others are also exhibiting good catch rates in our sampling years.

Spotted Seatrout trends in the Lower Laguna Madre are an exception to this. Spotted Seatrout is the most popular catch of anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the publication, Fisheries of the United States, put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2004.

Spotted Seatrout exhibit sexual dimorphism. In this case, it's differential growth rates. Females grow faster and larger. Female fish recruit to the fishery at about age 2, while male fish recruit to the fishery at about age 3. Fish that reach the maximum slot limit of 25 inches are usually female and about four to five years of age.

A 30-inch fish is a female and about six years of age or older. Fifty to seventy percent of the fish at age one are sexually mature. Young fish make an important contribution to the spawn, but the greatest portion of the spawning biomass, or the primary spawning biomass, is within an age range of 2 to 5 years of age. This is about a 16 to 24-inch range in size. Spotted Seatrout are serial spawners, with spawning activity in the summer months from May through August. Batch fecundity, or the number of eggs produced per spawn, ranges from 250,000 to 1 million eggs and a female fish may produce 2.5 to 25 million eggs in a season.

Spotted Seatrout are lifetime estuary residents. They exhibit little movement from a home area and our Parks and Wildlife tagging studies show average movement of about ten miles from the point of capture. One third of Spotted Seatrout tagged were recaptured at the release site.

The best indicator of adult Spotted Seatrout abundance are our spring gill net surveys. Coastwide, Spotted Seatrout have exhibited a steady increase in relative abundance, which indicates that management measures are effective in almost all bay systems. Every bay system except the Lower Laguna Madre exhibit an upward trend in Spotted Seatrout abundance. I've selected three bay systems as representatives of these. Galveston Bay has an upward trend, Matagorda Bay has an upward trend, and the Upper Laguna Madre, the bay adjacent to the Lower Laguna Madre, has an upward trend as well.

The Lower Laguna Madre, however, is the only bay system with a decreasing trend in Spotted Seatrout abundance. While there is some variation associated with the freeze mortalities following 1983, 1989, and 1997, the trends since 1997 has been consistently decreasing. In comparison to the coastwide average, the Lower Laguna Madre exhibits a catch rate that is historically the highest on the Texas coast, yet over the past ten years has fallen closer to the coastwide average. In fact, this past spring, the Lower Laguna Madre showed its lowest Spotted Seatrout catch rate since 1985. While this data shows a low catch rate in the most recent sampling period, the data do not indicate that the fishery is overfished yet. The issue is the direction of the trend. If this is not reversed, we may be looking at a more serious situation in the future.

DR. McKINNEY: Excuse me. Let me go back to that for a second, because I think it's real important part of the issue for us, that we're taking a look at here. What we're looking at now is should we take action now, we contemplate taking action now before we have to look at something down the road where our options are much more reduced and much more drastic. That's really what we're talking about. The fishery there is obviously still good. It's a wonderful one. It's a good place to go, but we want to keep it there and return it there. So the idea is we want to be proactive and move this thing back to where it should be.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: As early as possible.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: The earlier the better.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: This spring, our science staff completed a bay-by-bay stock assessment of Spotted Seatrout. One particularly disturbing trend in the Lower Laguna Madre was the spawning stock biomass. This is an estimate of the total weight of adult female Spotted Seatrout in the population based on our fishery independent monitoring program. It shows a steady decline with little variation and no indication of change.

So what brought Spotted Seatrout to this condition? There are likely several factors, some environmental and some relating to fishing mortality. The environmental factors are climatic events such as major freezes, and what is now considered to be the drought of record in South Texas, and also habitat issues such as degraded water quality in some cases, degraded seagrass health, and harmful algal blooms.

The Department is working on habitat issues in several arenas, including regional water planning and initiatives such as the Arroyo Colorado Watershed Protection Plan, which is an effort to reduce nutrient loading in the stream of the Arroyo Colorado, but the work in those arenas and the positive results are long term. Evidence shows that the fishing mortality is a factor in Spotted Seatrout trends. While environmental factors such as those listed may affect the population by limiting the success of reproduction, information shows that the Spotted Seatrout population has produced fish at a rate great enough for the overall numbers to grow.

Recruitment of adult fish to the fishery has steadily increased over time. This graph represents the relative abundance of Spotted Seatrout in the 14 to 16-inch-size class. Fish are being recruited successfully to the fishery, but fishing mortality is having an impact. This graph compares the size class distribution of spring gill net catches between the years 1985 to 2001 and 2001 to 2005. Recruitment of fish into the fishery in the 14 to 16-inch class and even the 16 to 18-inch class is greater in recent years, but fish are disappearing more rapidly in every size class from 20 inches and higher. This means that fishing mortality is having an effect.

In addition, harvest data show that as overall angling pressure is steady or increasing slightly, landings of Spotted Seatrout are showing a declining trend. While the measures in the stock assessment do not yet indicate that Spotted Seatrout in the Lower Laguna Madre are overfished, indicators such as this are classic signs that could indicate trouble for Spotted Seatrout if corrective action is not taken.

The Lower Laguna Madre has and should support a

world-class Spotted Seatrout fishery. The history of the fishery, the geography, and the productivity of the Lower Laguna Madre all indicate that possibility. The indicators shown show that Spotted Seatrout are not headed in the right direction and we should consider management action to maintain status as a world-class Spotted Seatrout fishery. Because coastwide trends are positive, and the Lower Laguna Madre is the only bay system exhibiting negative trends in Spotted Seatrout, a regional management approach appears to be one option that might accomplish the goal of maintaining a world-class Spotted Seatrout fishery. The life history of Spotted Seatrout and geography of the Lower Laguna Madre make this a feasible option.

Additionally, we conducted three scoping meetings in the Lower Laguna Madre area in June on this issue, which showed that the majority of anglers attending these meetings support a regional approach to management, even if it means more restrictive regulations. There are several considerations with a regional management approach, such as impacts to adjacent fisheries through shifting pressure among areas, like adjacent bay systems, and among species, for instance, shifting from Spotted Seatrout to Red Drum. Other considerations are the ability of different regulations to be enforced, and the ease with which regulations can be complied with, and also socioeconomic impacts to local communities.

The next steps we plan on taking are to develop management options, such as reducing the bag limit and/or increasing the minimum size limit. We plan to conduct scoping meetings in the fall on those options and these other considerations. Results from this process will be proposals included in the statewide regulatory process this fall, winter, and spring. We are working on the issue early because of the great amount of interest in the Spotted Seatrout fishery statewide as well as in the Lower Laguna Madre. With the application of appropriate management measures developed through this process, a world-class fishery in the Lower Laguna Madre can be maintained. Thank you.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thanks, Randy, for always this excellent work that you do. Help me a little bit on the contributing factors. You had drought and water quality and there's really only one inflow there. That's Arroyo Hondo. Right? Well, review that.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Okay. Yes, there's low freshwater inflow to the bay. That is the way the bay is set up

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — and the nature of it. The most significant freshwater inflow contributor is the Arroyo Colorado. The drought conditions, in some cases during the peak years of the drought, particularly 1999 through about 2001, we saw some salinities in some areas of the bay that got hyper-saline to the extent that actually reached some toxic levels for juvenile Spotted Seatrout. We even saw a little bit of reduced recruitment of age 0 fish during those years, but when we looked at then in turn those fish when they would have reached the larger size, we still saw recruitment that was high enough that should have been supporting a larger population in the years following. So even though there was lower

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Not only angler pressure could account for it

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Exactly.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: — at those larger sites?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: At that larger site, exactly. So even though we had lower from at age 0, we still apparently had survival well enough to recruit to the fishery and they disappeared faster once they reached that recruitment stage.

DR. McKINNEY: And you make a good point. I want to expound on that just briefly. We get this, every once in a while, you say, Well, look, it's not fishing pressure, it's all these other factors, environmental factors, that are affecting it. It's true, in fact, in Laguna, you have to change your thought a little bit that when you think about freshwater flow, it's actually seawater that can be freshwater. It's coming in there, too. It's an odd it's a little bit different.

Our approach has basically been, as Randy said in his briefing, that we're trying to address those long term issues like habitat and water quality. We can influence those. We work with TCEQ and other agencies. We don't have any control there, but we can influence them. What we do have control over is fishing regulations. If we can see, as we do here, we can have an impact. We can make it, our regulations do make an impact. That makes it a viable management tool to move forward with, but we can see some results pretty quickly there. We're going to have to live with those environmental conditions and try to influence them over a longer span of time. That's just the reality of how it works.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Is there an issue in the water quality in the Arroyo Colorado? Is that part of it?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes, the problem with the Arroyo Colorado is relative to nutrient loading. It drains almost the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley area, which consists of a lot of agricultural fields and a lot of other sources of nutrients. That nutrient problem actually creates an hypoxia problem within a portion of the stream. The effort under the Watershed Protection Plan that is spearheaded by TCEQ is to try to build support and participation across the area by many different stakeholders to reduce those nutrient contributions to the stream, reduce the hypoxia problem, but it also not only does that, it reduces the nutrients that ultimately might make it into the Lower Laguna Madre itself that promote drift algae and other macrophytes

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Another one of the contributing factors.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — that grow on seagrasses that can of shade out

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — and actually make problems for seagrass health.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: So if it's successful, it has a potential to really have a benefit for seagrasses as well.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: My point is that unless we address some root causes at some point, bag limit is not going to fix the resource problem if you're not addressing some of those root issues. So what's the progress on that initiative with TCEQ?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: That plan has just been completed and is in the stage now where we are, and have actually, already tried to seek funds for some of the major initiatives, like for instance, an off-channel wetland that would divert water through a wetland to remove nutrients and either return that water to the stream or do something else with the tail flows. It would actually be an idea kind of similar to what you see with Richland Chambers Reservoir and the wildlife management area there.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Unfortunately, the beginning stages of that study weren't funded. We applied for some CF funds for that. It was not funded. So we'll be seeking funds for that through other areas. I say, we, because I'm a participant in the partnership of that Arroyo Colorado Partnership this year.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Who was the applicant for the CF funds?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: It was Sea Grant, Texas Sea Grant.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: There were two elements if I understood it. One you said reduces the nutrient loading, I assume to mean at the source. The other element was

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Removing it after it's there.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: — removing it after it was already there.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes, the plan is a very complex plan, you might imagine. It incorporates the agricultural community and them implementing best management practices to handle the tail flows of water that they use for irrigation and trying to create buffers around their fields. Also, wetlands and some of the drainage ditches and some of those areas that might remove nutrients once it's in the stream; the off-channel wetland concept, which is actually the number one strategy that's in there; and then also working with the cities and their wastewater effluent to try and improve their wastewater treatment and the amount of nutrients that potentially come from that. Those cities may not individually be in great violation of their permits, but the contribution of all of them together is what ends up causing the problem. It's not just the cities, but agriculture and runoff and all of that kind of thing, too.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: With the population trend line, it can't do anything but get worse.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Right, yes.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: But you're not seeing these problems in other areas, like the upper one. Is it because there's more fresh flows into it?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: No, not necessarily. Are you talking about the nutrient loading problems?

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Yes. Well, there's not so much farming so I understand that. I mean, is it also because more flow is coming both from the Gulf and

DR. McKINNEY: Like when you go to Corpus and those type of things, you have some more activity. They've been more active up there in working with the alternatives.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: And there's more freshwater flow in Corpus Bay. There's more freshwater flow coming in and so the nutrient loading isn't as great compared to the amount of water you've got to work with than in the Lower Laguna Madre, where the stream is just when we say it's a stream, it's a small drainage ditch.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: I know.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: I mean, it really doesn't hold much water.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: It's an arroyo.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: I know.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: It's not a river.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Originally, when you go back before agriculture began, it was an intermittent stream.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: These are return flows of irrigation water.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: From the Rio Grande.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Yes, from the Rio Grande.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: And effluents.

COMMISSIONER HOLT: And effluents, yes, right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: And it's all return flows from the Rio Grande.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right, but he makes an important point, is that the Lower Laguna Madre has evolved as a higher saline environment. It has higher total numbers of trout, has had, catch rates of the other bays. So it's not really freshwater inflow volumes that's the issue because it's the quality of that water, of what little water there is. Is that correct?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: That is correct.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: All right.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Under the conditions that we have now, the bay has produced Spotted Seatrout very well in the recent history. It's over the last eight to ten years that we've seen this trend that has resulted in getting closer to the coastwide average.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: You mentioned seagrass. I don't know if the right term was degradation or loss. What is the issue there?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Well, there's several issues. One of the biggest one is related to nutrient loading and to the drift algae problem that I described earlier. That is something that has been monitored and has been identified as a problem. It's something I think merits more work, not just from Parks and Wildlife necessarily but from other folks as well. I think several experts there recognize that.

We also have physical destruction, crops growing in some areas. You have issues related to maintenance dredging of the intercoastal waterway. Those kind of things continue, but when you add in nutrient loading and potentially increasing nutrient loading issues, then and not just from the arroyo but from other sites as well

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: The amount of them

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — other municipalities, other cities around the area, you know, runoff that comes from them. You have wastewater treatment issues that may result from that. All of those combined that in the Lower Laguna Madre if you have an increase in nutrient loading, it's a great change. One of the characteristics of the Lower Laguna is clear water. Clear water means that there's not as much nutrient load in that water to produce phytoplankton as there is let's say, in Corpus Christi Bay or Aransas Bay, where you have much more freshwater inflow, a lot more nutrients in the system, and the water is more green because there is more phytoplankton in the water.

COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Is

COMMISSIONER HOLT: Has

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Phil.

COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Given the level of tourism down here, is it possible that we're going to end up with regulatory choices that affect locals versus tourist economy differentially? We ought to consider those in the process of what kind of regimes to put in place.

DR. McKINNEY: Absolutely. I mean, the whole just kind of a side issue, I don't want to move you off track but this whole idea of looking at a regional management approach, or even a regulation approach, it's a huge step for us to take a look at because we've dealt with it on a statewide basis we haven't been able to do that for years. It's a real serious issue for us to even think about this now. If we're going to, this is the place to do it and our management team is set up to allow us to look at it, but when you do that, there's these things you've got to look at. That's why we started this scoping process and looking at things very early. So that when we move into normal regulation process, when you look at this in January and April, we hope to have all the information we can get in front of you so that you can consider all of those effects. You're absolutely right. You know, it can have, and we need to look at that very carefully.

COMMISSIONER MONTGOMERY: Yes.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Donato?

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Larry, in going back to that graph, it appeared to me that there was a greater number of young fish as compared to larger fish.

DR. McKINNEY: Right, there are.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: My question is does the nutrient loading have a greater impact on the young fish, or the older fish, or the same amount, or there's no pattern there?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Well, this is a typical, the general shape of this is a typical curve for a fish population, where you have more younger fish than you do older fish. Of course, this is our gill net survey so fish are recruited to this gear at just below the legal size. So we're not seeing the fish that are much smaller. The nutrient loading issue, really what we're talking about there is the potential for that to cause problems for habitat. The habitat issue then would be most quickly seen, if it became a problem, in the very small fish, age zero fish usually, and their recruitment. So we would see that in our bag seine samples. Thus far, we see recruitment of those fish is still occurring. It's occurring at levels that still produce enough fish to supply the fishery once they get a little bit larger.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: So if that's normal, can we conclude from that then that's it's more of a harvest issue than a true environment? It seems to me that there's enough fish coming in, but that we still see a decline.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: It would seem to me that the only other factor would be the amount of fish that are being harvested.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes, that's it.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: That's the bottom line?

DR. McKINNEY: That's the bottom line that we think we can have influence over. We know that the other factors are there. Now, I think where we've been lucky in the Lower Laguna, of course, is the fact that we've had the Padre Island National Seashore on one side and we've had the King Ranch and the large landholders on the other to really protect and buffer that area, but you know of the ranchers some of them are converting over to agriculture and the Lower Laguna population is growing, I mean, the whole South Texas. So there's a point at which all of that begins to overwhelm even that buffering that we get. In reality, that's why the harvest issue, we feel confident that we can have an influence on this through harvest regulations.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: What's the dividing line between the Upper and the Lower?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: That's a very good question. For our purposes

DR. McKINNEY: It's a secret. We can't tell you.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — the purposes of our sampling programs, the dividing line is the southern end of the land cut. Most people are familiar with where that is.

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Show us on that other map.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: The land cut at Port Mansfield.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: It's just north of Port Mansfield, about roughly 20 miles.

MR. MCKINNEY: So it's about 20 miles north.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: On this I don't have a pointer but you'll see that there's a color change in those bay systems. The dark blue at the top

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Yes.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — that's the Upper Laguna Madre and the light blue at the bottom, that's the Lower Laguna Madre. They're separated by that kind of tannish-looking body. That's the mud flats and the land cut goes through that. Okay. So it would be the southern end of that.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: So it's the land cut that separates it?

DR. McKINNEY: Yes, the land cut would be the logical approach.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Yes, that is one option. The boundary for the regulatory part of this is one of the issues that we are considering and thinking quite heavily about. Certainly, well, some of the considerations are you need something that's geographically recognizable, but also applies to our data. That is one spot that is both of those.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Has the drop in flow from the Rio Grande into the Gulf had an impact on this?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: I

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Because those

MR. BLANKENSHIP: You're talking about, for instance, when we lost the connection with the Gulf of Mexico

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Yes.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: — where the river mouth closed in 2001 and 2002?

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Yes.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: The Rio Grande is a very important estuary for many estuarian-dependent species. Spotted Seatrout is less dependent on that minor estuary than some other species like Common Snook or White Shrimp would be. So Spotted Seatrout utilize the whole Lower Laguna Madre as a nursery area. That particular issue probably did not really affect the Spotted Seatrout species. Some of the others, it may have, potentially, yes.

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Have you noticed any change with new seawater coming up, say, from the third pass below the Rio Grande?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: Below the Rio Grande? So you're talking about

COMMISSIONER PARKER: You know, the new seawater coming that flows up and into the

DR. McKINNEY: It flows into the Brownsville channel and up into the Bay

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Yes.

DR. McKINNEY: — and the issues related to that.

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Yes.

MR. BLANKENSHIP: So this would be near shore currents that would be taken in and out of the pass at Brazos Santiago at Port Isabel or something like that?

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Right. Is there any way to evaluate any change in that near shore current?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: The quick answer to that is we don't have much information related to that specific question. It's one that I think could be considered quite well.

COMMISSIONER PARKER: Could that new seawater be a factor?

MR. BLANKENSHIP: The hydrology studies of the Lower Laguna Madre and how water exchanges through that pass shows that there's, relatively speaking, very little water exchange in the Lower Laguna Madre through that pass. The area of influence is that area right basically, roughly speaking, from the Queen Isabella Causeway and that general area towards the pass and that's about it. It takes much more time for water to circulate in the rest of the area. In fact, circulation there is wind driven from the southeast, the prevailing southeast winds, that push water generally northbound. It's a very slow process for water to exchange in the bay itself though.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Randy, you've obviously got a handle on this. If you would, in the interest of addressing this early, come right back to us with some specific recommendations and let's look at what the options are from the regulatory standpoint, keeping in mind that we're only working one side of the vice, that these other environmental issues, we've got to get some cooperation and help where we can, TCEQ, and I guess GLO's role in the sea app

DR. McKINNEY: Corps of Engineers.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: — Corps of Engineers, because you can keep protecting a depleting resource until you don't have a bag limit if you don't eventually address those resource issues.

DR. McKINNEY: Mr. Chairman, our staff now, biologists are looking at management options. We're going to be going out to our constituents and presenting a series of options to get their feedback on what they think. We'll bring those back to you. So that will be our next stage.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Anything else for Randy?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Randy, thanks a lot, and Larry, thank you. That's just a briefing item.

Next up is Item 3, License Buyback Program, Robin Riechers.

MR. RIECHERS: For the record, Mr. Chairman and Commissioners, my name is Robin Riechers. I'm the Science and Policy Director for Coastal Fisheries Division. As indicated, I'm going to be giving you an update of the Inshore Shrimp License Buyback Program today.

I put this slide up just to kind of remind everyone that in reality the Department has had authority over the shrimp fishery for a relatively short period of time. We actually gained that authority in 1985. And then with the passage of the Shrimp Management Plan in 1989, we actually took ahold of that authority if you will.

From 1959 to 1989, many changes were occurring in the Inshore Fishery. Increased effort, shifting in species, focus, and increased recreational demand was driving that fishery. During that time, really no concerted effort made to change any of the rules were ongoing in the legislature during that period. We did follow that up with rulemaking in '91, '94, and 2000, and of course, the Inshore License Management Plan in 1995, which actually gave us the authority to also create the Buyback Program.

To give you a brief synopsis of what we've done in that program, we had 18 rounds. We use a reverse bid procedure, whereby the applicant gives us a price they'd be willing to accept. We pull all those in, and we take those, rank those, and go down as far as our money will allow us to take, based on the ones that we deem are acceptable given some of the price structures that we started with. As you can see, after about five rounds, everyone kind of figured out what we were willing to pay there. The red line indicates the applications. The yellow line is those that were accepted. And then, after the acceptance of some, we always lose a few. And so, the white lines are those who we crossed the threshold with basically.

What you can't see, in the last four rounds there's been a lot of discussion that basically represents our last two fiscal years. You have seen there that we went through a period where we were a little bit down in applications. Over the course of the last four rounds, the applications have been up considerably. You can see that we've pretty much accepted a pretty good percentage of those. We accept a little greater than 50 to 60 percent typically.

When you look at the purchase price that we pay per round, here they are round by round over the 18 rounds. Of course, we started out with about $3,600 average. Just recently, we topped out just above the $8,000 line. If you kind of look at that basically, based on rounds ten and eleven forward, it's been relatively flat, kind of moving up from about a $7,500 range to the current $8,000 range that we're at now. We've never paid above $10,000 of our money in regards to any of the purchase price we've paid. We've paid right at the $10,000 mark. That's been our upper bound.

Some of you may remember that in rounds 14 and 15, or I'll remind you that it was in rounds 14 and 15, the Earl C. Sams Foundation basically stepped in and gave us a grant that paid the difference between what we would be willing to pay in the bid. So we did pay up to $15,000 in those two rounds, but those were specific counties that they targeted that they were willing to donate money for.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: There's another private group that they buy it directly and then retire them.

MR. RIECHERS: There's another private group that buys directly and retires, and that's Saltwater Enhancement Association.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Right.

MR. RIECHERS: SCA, I'm sorry. It's Saltwater Conservation Association. I'm getting my groups mixed up.

Kind of keeping in mind what our whole justification and goal of this whole program and the limited entry program was, is that we were really out to reduce the overall inshore fishing effort. When you compare this slide as compared to the rest of our sister states from Louisiana to Florida, you can see that we have had the desired effect of reducing our effort in the Inshore Shrimp Fishery as we started this program in '95. You can see that Louisiana and Florida, at least through the '04-'05 time frame, you saw an increasing trend throughout that period of time. Now, obviously with the storms, in the '06 year, they may all be down somewhat as well.

To give you kind of where we are today, of course, I've already indicated we've had 18 total rounds, which basically comes out to a fall and spring round each fiscal year. We've purchased 792 bay and 746 bait licenses. That equates to 47 percent of the licenses that we started with when we started the program. We spent about $9.8 million roughly.

Where that has us standing as we head into the fiscal year '07 is that we will currently have right at around, the best we can account for, 713 bay and 718 bait licenses left in the fishery. When you consider that many of those vessels hold both a bay and a bait license, that equates to approximately 820 vessels.

When you look at the projection of where we expect this to end up over the course of the next few years, you basically will see that by the time we get through the year 2010, if our projections are close to where we've been in the past, we would end up with about 500 vessels. Now, I make a note of, I say if our projections are where we thought we'd be in the past, we've just revised those projections because over the course of the last two fiscal years, we were about 60 licenses ahead of what we would have projected at that time, when we were looking back. So we have had a speed up over the course of the last two fiscal years. Certainly, that can be associated with the high fuel prices and some of the other things going on in that industry. I might also add that these projections certainly are based on the amount of monies we have to spend. As mentioned earlier, we do have a $1 million reduction in this program budgeted in the '08-'09 fiscal years.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: Is there any Sunset on that authority, for the Buyback program?

MR. RIECHERS: No, sir. There's no Sunset on the authority. That was basically put in and we can stop it at any point in time, and we can even reissue licenses at a point in time if we deem they are necessary, but there's no Sunset.

COMMISSIONER BIVINS: What is your target level?

MR. RIECHERS: It's a very good question. We've talked about a lot of different target levels and the real target we're looking for is to go back to a historical period where catch per unit effort was much higher in the inshore area. And so, we're continuing to look at that catch per unit effort.

Another target that we've talked about from time to time in front of this body, when we added the $3 surcharge, we basically tasked ourselves with trying to purchase 50 percent of what was currently there in license numbers, with that $3 surcharge. So we are nearing that kind of short term goal. That wasn't really a biological goal, but that was a way we could look at different fee increases and try to determine which fee increases would reach us to certain levels at which point.

With that, there's been a lot of discussion about active and inactive licenses and how much we pay for those licenses. I just want to kind of remind everyone that within the context of the program, under statute, these licenses are fully transferable. They can be transferred from one individual to the next and we facilitate that through our license offices. What that basically means is that if we discount the price we're paying for a license, or if we basically refuse to buy licenses from certain people because they don't show activity, it's just going to create license brokering of those licenses.

Now, we do have our trip ticket system which is going to go online full bore here on September 1. It will allow us to value those licenses better and we certainly understand that. That's one of the reasons we're pushing to get that program online, but we have to recognize that with transferability some of the gains you may get in purchasing active licenses, you may just be moving licenses around. So we might have to look at addressing that both in the legislature as well as in how we do our business here.

DR. McKINNEY: These next two rounds, which are next year '07 rounds of License Buyback when we have the full funds available should be pretty interesting. As the news goes out in fact, this will probably be the first time anyone has even thought about it or heard about it outside of the Commission and staff that as part of our LAR, we've put the License Buyback Program in that 10 percent budget cut. So depending on action the legislature, we may not be buying back shrimp licenses to the degree that we have over the next couple of years. That may certainly influence some folks next year, with fuel prices and shrimp prices, that maybe this is the time they ought to get out of this thing. We might see that. It will be an interesting experiment in that regard, even on the anticipation of what the legislature might do, much less what they may or may not do.

MR. RIECHERS: That concludes our presentation. Any other questions, I'll be happy to try to answer them.

COMMISSIONER FRIEDKIN: We do not have authority to reissue or to stop reissuance of inactive licenses. Is that right?

DR. McKINNEY: If you have a license now

COMMISSIONER FRIEDKIN: Right.

DR. McKINNEY: — you have a license, if you don't sell it back to us, well, even if you sell it back to us, you can buy another one. It's fully transferrable. Now, that's our concern.

COMMISSIONER FRIEDKIN: Regardless of activity on the license?

MR. RIECHERS: Correct.

DR. McKINNEY: Right now, as long as the legislature allows that, no matter what system we come up with that says these shrimpers are very active, we'd like to buy their licenses back. If I was a smart shrimper there, I would sell that one back to me at a high price, and then go buy me a cheap one, and I'd be right back in business. It would be a brokerage sale.

That will happen; it does now.

MR. RIECHERS: If I may add, the difficulty that we've talked about in the past, I mean, you could require some sort of activity requirement, but how do we prove that, or how do they prove that to our license deputies and how do we handle that within that context, whether it's an income tax form, or what they would have to show to do that?

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: But that's in your discretion. You're the one that has to be satisfied as to whether or not it's

MR. RIECHERS: No, and the Department

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: — they have to satisfy you that it is. So I don't see that that's a problem.

MR. RIECHERS: No, if the authority was broad, we could certainly create what we consider

COMMISSIONER FRIEDKIN: A reasonable methodology?

MR. RIECHERS: That's right.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: If your objective is not to buy an inactive license, that's a waste of the angler's money.

DR. McKINNEY: Exactly. Those licenses, frankly, are doing pretty good, buying a license but not using them.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Sure.

DR. McKINNEY: So they're giving us money for not doing what we don't want them to do. So it's not a bad deal.

MR. COOK: I can't it's interesting. Making the decisions and the recommendations that I made regarding the LAR and the program, you know, we're definitely headed in the right direction, in a positive direction, I think, as far as resource. One of the issues, of course, that and not being from the science standpoint number of boats fishing?

MR. RIECHERS: Do you want me to give them the latest count?

MR. COOK: Yes.

MR. RIECHERS: August 15th. We typically do flyovers in the spring and fall. On our fall flyover, as the inshore shrimp season opened in the fall on August 15, we did a flyover. We counted 213 vessels. That's 27 percent down from what it was in '04 when we did that. We didn't do that in '05. If you look at the long term average, it's almost just 30 percent of what the long term average is. It was 213. The long term average was about 600. So the inshore average is certainly down at this point. It may have something to do with our Buyback program. It has a lot to do with the cost of fuel and the price of shrimp.

MR. COOK: That's what I mean. I mean, the overall effort is clearly declined for probably a number of reasons. We want to do a good job of buying back the right licenses and having a long range impact. Thank you.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Do we have specific data on how the resource has been impacted by that? Is there some trend?

MR. RIECHERS: Yes, for the sake of time here today, I didn't really go into the resource

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Just briefly.

MR. RIECHERS: — trend side, but certainly our Brown Shrimp trends and our White Shrimp trends have shown that we've decreased efforts. Our catch per unit efforts have been going up in the inshore areas. We've seen greater abundance trends. We've had the desired effect biologically and our offshore catches are also showing that so we've seen a lot of positive signs there that it is working and the program is going in the direction we set out, from a biological standpoint, to achieve.

DR. McKINNEY: As it reduces that bycatch, we begin to see those positive trends in Crabs, Croaker, and Flounder. I mean, Flounder is still tough, but it's better than it was. It had a tremendous impact on the rest of that fishery to bring it up.

COMMISSIONER RAMOS: Okay.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Anything else?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Thanks, gentlemen. Item 4, Amendments to Harmful or Potentially Harmful Exotic Fish, Joedy Gray, this is our action item.

MR. GRAY: Mr. Chairman, Committee members, my name is Joedy Gray. I'm with the Inland Fishing Division. The Commission has established rules to regulate the importation, possession, sale, and placement in the water of this state any harmful or potentially harmful exotic fish, shellfish, or aquatic plant. Staff is proposing amendments to these rules which will provide additional protection for our native aquatic species and provide consistency and clarification of such provisions of the rules.

Staff is proposing adding two Chinese Carp to the prohibited fish list. These carp have the potential to cause negative ecological impacts if accidentally released in the state waters. Round Gobies have invaded the Great Lakes, causing ecological damage to the native fish species there. Therefore, staff proposes adding Round Gobies to our prohibited fish list. Chinese Perches have been added because of their cold tolerance and potential to compete with our native Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass. The Asian and European Temperate Basses are ecological counterparts to our native Striped Bass and White Bass. They have the potential to be major competitors with our native species. Staff proposes prohibiting all species of Temperate Basses except Striped Bass, White Bass, Yellow Bass, and hybrids between the three.

Staff is proposing the following changes to the prohibited shellfish list. The prohibition on crayfish has been expanded to include all Southern Hemisphere crayfishes. Some species of Australian crayfishes would represent a major ecological threat if released in Texas. Therefore, it is prudent to restrict them now before they become prevalent in the aquaculture or pet industries. Additionally, the prohibition on Applesnails and Giant Ramshorn Snails has been expanded to include all but one species, which is currently popular in the pet industry.

To maintain consistency with the U.S.D.A. and Texas Department of Agriculture regulations, eight species of plants have been added to the prohibited plant list. Finally, Water Spinach has been added to the list of exotic species that are permitted to culture in Texas. Water Spinach has been cultured for over 20 years in the Houston area. Extensive habitat surveys by staff biologists revealed no evidence of Water Spinach in public waters. Therefore, staff recommends that current culture facilities be allowed to continue operating under a permit from the Department.

The proposed amendments were published in the Texas Register and received negative comments from members of academia, the aquaculture, and pet industries. One comment was received in support of the proposed rules and two comments were neutral. The major concern from the aquaculture industry and academia was the economic effect the prohibition would have on small businesses which currently culture and sell Australian Red Claw in Texas. Documents were provided suggesting that the temperature range of the Australian crayfish would prevent their survival in Texas waters during the winter should they escape and that they were nonaggressive passive species. They also noted that there are no established populations of Red Claws in North America due to escapement.

The pet industry wholesalers are concerned the proposed rules will affect their distribution of crayfish to pet stores in Texas. Hobbyists mentioned that certain species in the prohibited family are popular in the pet industry, including the Australian Red Claw. The Australian government expressed concern that the prohibition would prevent the trade and transportation of live crayfish throughout Texas. One commenter expressed neither support nor opposition, but appeared to suggest that the proposed prohibition should also prevent movement of native species between watersheds and their use as bait. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council is generally not opposed to the rule, but requests that Cherax genus be not included in the restriction.

The comments in favor of the proposed amendments noted that any crayfish outside of its native range has the potential of being an ecological problem and that the reported temperature ranges for the Australian Red Claw fall well within the temperatures in the Upper San Marcos and Comal Rivers. Another commenter pointed out that the rules tend to use the terms "exotic species" and "harmful" or "potentially harmful exotic species" interchangeably, although the two terms have different definitions. Staff agrees with this comment and will modify the rules accordingly.

In response to comments from the aquaculture industry, staff is proposing to add an exception to Subsection 57.113(d) to allow possession, propagation, sale, and transport of Australian Red Claw crayfish provided applicants meet the requirements to obtain an exotic species permit. Retail or wholesale fish dealers and restaurants will be allowed to possess live specimens of Australian Red Claw, but may only sell or deliver specimens that are dead, packaged in ice, or frozen, or of course cooked in the restaurant.

In response to comments from the pet industry, staff contacted numerous members of the pet industry to discuss proposed changes. From our contacts, it appears that the prevalent crayfish currently sold in pet stores in Texas is the Electric Blue crayfish, Procambarus alleni, which is native to North America and therefore will not be affected by these rules. While comments referred to the popularity of Australian crayfish in the Texas pet industry, staff could not verify this statement. One individual mentioned having 50 individuals in a tank and Petco distributes them to their Texas stores, but the distribution volume could not be ascertained.

If there are other species being sold that are in the proposed prohibited family, a risk analysis must be submitted to the Department for consideration. Likewise, the only species of crayfish from Australia currently being marketed throughout Texas is the Australian Red Claw. Additional species need to be submitted to the Department for approval prior to live shipments into Texas.

Finally, staff surveys of other states indicated that nine states either totally banned or have some sort of restriction on species in the family Percichthyidae. Staff contacted other Gulf states and found out that Florida only allows culture of Red Claws with a permit. All other states, with the exception of Alabama, strongly discourage the use of Red Claw. Alabama has promoted the use of Red Claw in their ag programs in the past, but is now taking a more cautious approach.

And I'll be happy to answer any questions.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Any questions for Joedy?

(No response.)

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: If there are no further questions or discussion, I'll place this item on the Thursday Commission meeting agenda for public comment and action. Joedy, thank you very much.

MR. GRAY: Thank you.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Any other business before this committee, Mr. Cook?

MR. COOK: No, sir.

COMMISSIONER FITZSIMONS: Hearing none, this committee has completed its business and the Regulations Committee is adjourned. We'll pass the gavel over to Commissioner Montgomery for Conservation.

(Whereupon, at 11:38 a.m., this Regulations Committee meeting was concluded.)

C E R T I F I C A T E

MEETING OF: Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
Regulations Committee
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
DATE: August 23, 2006

I do hereby certify that the foregoing pages, numbers 1 through 45, inclusive, are the true, accurate, and complete transcript prepared from the verbal recording made by electronic recording by Penny Bynum before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Debbie Greene 8/31/06
(Transcriber) (Date)
On the Record Reporting, Inc.
3307 Northland, Suite 315
Austin, Texas 78731
ON THE RECORD REPORTING
(512) 450-0342


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