Catch limits for Louisiana's most popular fish are finally set to change after four years of discussion on how to address plummeting stocks for speckled trout -- and the controversial new rules will make it more difficult for recreational anglers to land dinner.
The rules that take effect on Nov. 20 mark the first change in Louisiana's recreational speckled trout limits since the 1980s, and state biologists say new regulations are in order to restore a population that has been in decline due to a variety of factors. The changes will bring Louisiana a step closer to other Gulf Coast states, which have tighter restrictions on speckled trout catch.
The changes are significant. Current rules allow anglers to keep 25 specks per day, with a minimum size limit of 12 inches. The new rules, which sunset at the start of 2028 to allow for a reassessment, include the following:
1. Changing the minimum size from 12 inches to 13 inches.
2. Establishing a maximum size of 20 inches, with two fish above that limit allowed.
3. Reducing the total catch per angler per day from 25 fish to 15.
Those in violation face fines of up to $350 in addition to restitution costs of $28.97 per illegal trout.
The rules have been the subject of tortuous discussion at the state's Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. Many charter captains have objected to raising the minimum size limit, saying their clients will struggle to catch enough fish. An earlier plan that would have increased the minimum size to 13.5 inches was shot down by state legislators.
State biologists say the difficulty in catching larger trout is indicative of the problem.
Speckled trout, officially spotted seatrout, have been overfished since 2016. Females aged 3 and older are at the lowest level ever recorded, state findings show. Nearly all speckled trout catch in Louisiana is by recreational anglers, with only a tiny commercial industry allowed, limited to rod-and-reel.
The causes of the decline range from the disappearance of habitat due to the loss of Louisiana's coastal wetlands to too many fish being caught. Seasonal weather patterns and fluctuations in salinity also play a role.
Anglers also point to the industrial-scale menhaden fishing that occurs off Louisiana's coast and question how many trout are being netted as bycatch. State biologists say their data so far shows trout bycatch is minimal.
While the new regulations have cleared all hurdles and will take effect as planned, they could potentially be overturned. Some charter captains have spoken of legal challenges to aspects of the rules, while Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, who takes office in January, could appoint members of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission who are willing to reverse or change them.
Some charter captains have been pointing to high speckled trout catch numbers this year to argue that the state's science showing declines is flawed. A lack of rainfall and low rivers have resulted in higher salinity in south Louisiana estuaries, improving conditions for speckled trout fishing there.
But Wildlife and Fisheries officials call those views short-sighted and point out that assessments of speckled trout stocks incorporate data across many years to establish overall trends.
"What we've seen over the past couple of decades is our proportion of older fish in the population is going down and down and down," said Patrick Banks, head of fisheries for the state. "If you were to look at the human population and all you saw were eight, nine and 10-year-old people out there, and there were very few 20-something and above people, well, that's not good for a population to be skewed to any one side of an age distribution."
Despite the data state biologists have presented, most anglers say they do not trust their methods. Many Louisiana Fishing Charter Captains are among those exploring whether to challenge an aspect of the new regulations that eliminates the so-called "guide limit." That allows charter captains to also catch their limit on trips, though in practice it usually means distributing those fish among the clients.
The state has also been seeking to tighten limits on redfish, another popular species among recreational anglers, but that, too, has proven difficult. A proposal to change the limits was rejected by a state legislative committee on Tuesday.
That proposal would have reduced catch limits from five redfish per day to three, increased the minimum size from 16 inches to 18 and lowered the maximum size from 27 inches to 24. It would have barred any redfish above the maximum size from being kept, while one fish above the maximum is currently allowed.
State biologists say redfish, officially red drum, are in the process of being overfished if no changes occur.
Even with the changes Louisiana still has one of the healthiest speckled trout fisheries in the world and some of the most liberal limits. So fish on and book your next New Orleans Fishing Charter and come enjoy the most exciting fishing in the world in the Sportsman's Paradise!