Artificial Intelligence is frighteningly smart, and it may eventually take over the world. But on its best day, AI could never draw up a more perfect nursery ground for redfish (red drum) than the one Mother Nature created over millennia of spewing sediment at the mouth of North America’s largest river.
The frayed, tattered sole of the boot that would eventually be known as Louisiana was like a factory that churned out reds faster than the local inhabitants could harvest them. For most of the 20th century, limits didn’t exist, and even when they were first enforced, they were laughingly liberal.
Louisiana Redfish Enter the Spotlight
That all changed with the blackened-redfish craze of the 1980s, when Louisiana first got serious about conservation, imposing a 5-fish limit per angler. It seemed a bit draconian at the time, but along with other protections for breeding-sized fish, it helped Louisiana’s redfish population explode. In fact, stocks got so strong, area crabbers began complaining that all the redfish were devouring their primary source of income.
Since the dramatic comeback of redfish populations in the 1990s, however, Louisiana has lost 10 to 32 square miles of marsh every year to coastal subsidence and ravaging winds and storm surges from hurricanes and other significant storms. It’s a trend that continues to this very day.
Even in its compromised state, the nursery ground still churns out the fish, but at nowhere near the rate it once did, and anglers have begun to notice. From the Sabine River to the Pearl, Louisiana anglers are reporting a dramatic decline in redfish battles.
I’ve seen it in my own catches. Redfish have become an incidental catch on speckled trout and largemouth bass trips rather than a species I actually target. There simply aren’t enough of them anymore to consistently fish for them.
I’ve spent three decades covering the outdoors in Louisiana, and because of that, I have a vast network of anglers I share information with on a daily or weekly basis. To a man, they all agree that — by orders of magnitude — Louisiana’s redfish population is worse than it’s ever been.
I published a video decrying the sorry state of the fishery last month, and most of the comments were in full agreement that there’s a problem. Many viewers blamed unfettered harvest of menhaden along Louisiana’s coast as the primary cause, while others pointed to nighttime bow-fishing, which is permitted in the Bayou State.
Obviously, any activity that takes redfish, or their forage base, out of the system is a contributing factor, and Louisiana certainly needs better data on impacts from the menhaden and bow-fishing industries, but an easy change to begin addressing the problem is a reduction in the recreational harvest.
Currently, Louisiana anglers may harvest five reds per angler per day, with a size minimum of 16 inches and a maximum of 27 inches (one fish may be over).
Catch-and-Release Fishing Can Help Louisiana
Louisiana has a rich culinary history, particularly when it comes to seafood. It was birthed out of our abundance. When nature keeps giving you a specific protein, you’d better come up with creative ways to prepare it.
In the local culture, eating fish is as significant a part of the fun as catching them. That means most anglers put every single legal redfish they catch in the box. They view catch and release as a type of sacrilege, like slapping the face of a god trying to bless you with bounty.
So, an angler who catches five reds is going home with five reds.
That was all fine when a redfish removed today simply made room in the ecosystem for the next one. Louisiana’s abundant marsh was literally that productive.
But those days are gone, and they’re never coming back. It’s time for the state’s fisheries managers to acknowledge the decline that has become so obvious to anglers, and tighten the harvest limits.
Louisiana’s other favorite fish, speckled trout, can almost be viewed as an annual crop, since the fish are bumping against the legal-size minimum at their first birthdays, but that’s not true with redfish. It’s a much slower-growing species that lives longer and, thus, takes many more flips of the calendar to recover.
Any changes made today will take years to provide real results, and that means time is something Louisiana can’t afford to waste.