Visions of Speckled Waters

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I was recently asked about my thoughts on speckled trout in the Chesapeake Bay for an upcoming “Profile in Fisheries” column by my friend Chris Dollar.  Here’s what I had to say.

There are two important aspects to consider when it comes to a highly prized sport fish like speckled trout – increasing carrying capacity and conservative management.

First, we need to consider ways to increase the carrying capacity of speckled trout.  In general, I believe the carrying capacity of the Chesapeake to support a wide variety of life has been hampered by declines in habitat and forage.  When it comes to speckled trout, shallow water habitat is key.  Much of the bay’s shallow water habitat has been lost with oyster reefs below 1% of historical value and the disappearance of eel grass (not to be confused with less valuable widgeon grass).  Construction of three-dimensional oyster restoration reefs is helpful, but must be located in shallow water where these reefs provide the most benefit as nursery habitat for a variety of life.  The increased life supported through shallow habitat restoration in-turn provides forage for shallow water species like speckled trout thus increasing the carrying capacity of the species within the Chesapeake.

As far as direct management of speckled trout in the region, little data is available to managers.  It is believed that the majority of Chesapeake Bay specks over-winter in North Carolina.  NC conducts a stock assessment, but the assessment is not done frequently enough to provide managers with current status of the stock.   Managers are often left to make assumptions off old data since specks are short-lived and prone to highly variable natural mortality due to cold temperature kills.  With species like speckled trout, managers need to take a conservative management approach.  This means managing much closer to theoretical carrying capacity than maximum sustainable yield.  Given the prized status of the species to sport fishing, it also makes sense to manage conservatively since the result is more fish available to sport fishing anglers who desire a quality fishing experience.   Monetarily, fish abundance directly coincides with revenue generated by local economies through sport fishing.

In conclusion, sport fishing anglers should support shallow water habitat restoration, encourage conservative management and promote stiff penalties for blatant resource violators.  Practicing careful catch and release while putting an end to wasteful methods like haul seining and shallow water gill netting will go a long way to protecting the future of speckled trout in the region.

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