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Jan. 23, 2006

Science Provides Foundation for Saltwater Fishing Regs

AUSTIN, Texas — It was a warm November evening in 1975 when a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coastal fisheries crew set the first gill net in Matagorda Bay.

By 6:30 a.m. the next day, biologists faced 3-foot seas and a cold, north wind as they counted and measured their catch.

That event marked the end of fisheries management “by hunch” in Texas.

In the more than three decades since, the TPWD coastal fisheries division has collected more than 20,500 gill net samples and more than 60,000 trawls in bays and the Gulf of Mexico.

Together with thousands of bag seines and oyster dredges and the creel survey program, started in 1974, the data give fisheries biologists a pretty good idea of what’s happening in Texas waters.

“Because we have such a long-term database, using the same gear, the same way, over time, we can look and see if there’s any change in the population, either in abundance or size structure,” said Mark Fisher, Ph.D., TPWD Coastal Fisheries science director .

When the coastal fisheries monitoring program turns up evidence of a declining population — whether from angling pressure or from a natural event, like a freeze or red tide — biologists can propose changes to fishing regulations in an effort to help a species rebound.

According to Fisher, creel surveys — where fisheries technicians and biologists interview anglers about their catches and count and measure what they kept — are not, by themselves, a reliable indicator of a fish population’s relative health.

“Sport and commercial fishing is not standardized like our monitoring program, so comparisons between bays and years is not possible, and market forces drive the commercial fishery — not necessarily abundance,” Fisher said.

Rule changes don’t always act to restrict fishing. The coastal fisheries resource monitoring program also sometimes gives managers grounds for loosening regulations.

Normally, biologists propose regulation changes through an annual regulatory review. After fall resource assessments and a review of recommendations received from various groups throughout the year, proposals are presented to the public for input in a process called “scoping.”

If the science shows a rule change is warranted in Texas, it is normally backed-up with a wealth of data. But science and even the scoping and public comment periods aren't the only deciding factors in the rule-making process, Fisher noted.

The department annually conducts angler surveys to better understand behaviors, motivations and attitudes about coastal fisheries issues. By gathering information on both the fish and the fishers (anglers), TPWD attempts to put conservation first while being sensitive to what anglers want and will support.

Fisher gives a frank assessment of how the regulatory review process works.

“Often, in fishing, it’s hard to separate science from politics,” he said. “We do realize we’re affecting people’s livelihoods and their favorite pastimes. The human dimension comes into consideration, definitely. The science gives us a solid foundation. Otherwise it becomes one person’s opinion over another, and that doesn’t work out too well.”

AR 2006-01-23


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