Fisheries Feature and Action Alert: Atlantic Croaker and Spot
Atlantic Croaker and Spot are popular and important North Carolina fisheries that are facing many challenges. Declining harvest, concerns related to stock status, and extraordinary bycatch in the North Carolina shrimp trawl fishery, necessitate proper management regulations in order to rebuild and achieve sustainable harvest.
Peak commercial landings in 1980 exceeded 21 million pounds. From 2001 through 2019, commercial landings declined from 12 million pounds to 1.2 million pounds, a 95% harvest reduction. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council’s stock assessment, fisheries are increasingly relying on juvenile fish, jeopardizing spawning ability and indicative of stock decline.
The greatest source of mortality for Atlantic Croaker is not the directed commercial fishery. The majority of mortality along the entire east coast occurs as bycatch in the estuarine shrimp trawl fishery in North Carolina. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries states however, that the degree to which shrimp trawl bycatch impacts stocks at the population level is either unknown or thought to be minimal. We disagree. Best management practices indicate that reducing mortality benefits stocks in decline.
Similarly, commercial Spot landings have declined by 95% as well. Landings declined from 7 million pounds in 1980 to less than 400,000 pounds in 2019. Mature fish have become increasingly rare indicating an unhealthy stock. Since Spot also makes up a large portion of bycatch, their abundance is greatly impacted.
Shrimp Trawl Bycatch
The North Carolina shrimp trawl observer program ranked Atlantic Croaker and Spot the two highest most abundant species discarded. Brown (2015) found that 57 million Spot were discarded as shrimp trawl bycatch, far greater than the estimated catch by commercial and recreational fishermen in 2020.
In addition to Spot being an extremely valuable fishery to recreational and commercial interests, they are critical components of the ecosystem. The magnitude of Spot bycatch in the shrimp trawl fishery has reduced their value as important prey.
Atlantic Croaker has dominated the catch in shrimp trawls and has regularly exceeded shrimp harvest in most seasons since 2012. The annual estimate from Brown (2015) indicates approximately 125 million Atlantic Croaker were discarded as shrimp trawl bycatch.
The fact that juvenile fishes comprise a greater fraction of the total catch than shrimp in the shrimp trawl fishery is alarming. We will not see a recovery of these iconic species until substantive action to address bycatch is adopted. The lack of consideration given bycatch impacts negatively affects all North Carolina fish stocks and makes their rebuilding projections falsely optimistic.
To put this into perspective, the total harvest* of Spot and Atlantic Croaker by commercial and recreational fishermen was approximately 2 million pounds in 2019.
*Assuming an average of one-third pound per fish, harvest in numbers would total 8 million individual fish equating to a meager 4% of the 182 million fish estimated lost in the shrimp trawl fishery.
Feature photo: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources