Sinking redfish numbers could place bull reds off limits to anglers

Recreational catches are at lowest levels since 1980s

By: - May 25, 2023 5:00 am
Person holding redfish just caught

Louisiana’s redfish stocks are declining at rates not seen since the 1980s, prompting lawmakers to push for tighter fishing regulations. (Canva image)

Redfish stocks in Louisiana are declining at rates that have prompted state lawmakers to ask for tighter fishing regulations.

The House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday from Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, that would urge the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to adopt a new limit prohibiting anglers from keeping any redfish over 27 inches in length. 

Redfish, which scientists and state regulators call red drum, are one of Louisiana’s most cherished species of saltwater fish, second only to the speckled trout. They are relatively large compared to trout and bass, with a red or sometimes golden hue and a distinctive black spot on their tail. 

Although they can be found in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, redfish spend the first few years of their lives in the shallow marsh habitats and even inland canals. Their size makes for exciting action with anglers, and they have been a sought-after delicacy since Chef Paul Prudhomme invented his famous blackened redfish dish in 1980.

Prudhomme’s revolutionary dish led to the first overfishing trend of redfish later that decade, prompting regulators to do away with commercial harvesting of the species in 1988. Redfish remains today a species protected from commercial fishing, but that may not be enough to save it from depletion.   

According to a 2022 stock assessment from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, recent recreational landings are at the lowest level observed since the 1980s, and the number of redfish spawning has been trending downward since 2005.

“There’s been extreme pressure on the fisheries of the red drum here lately,” Allain said. 

Current state creel and size limits allow anglers to keep five redfish per day that are between 16 and 27 inches in length, which are considered juveniles. The law also allows for a single “bull red” above 27 inches, which is when they begin to spawn. 

Speckled trout population falls to lowest level ever in Louisiana

Most of the redfish found in inland estuaries are juveniles. As a result, roughly 97% of the harvest is from the juvenile stock, according to LDWF. Bull reds are a rare catch, though their meat is often tough and unpalatable, so some anglers choose to release them, giving the fish a chance to spawn. For others, a bull red is a trophy fish to be mounted on a wall.

Taking bull reds from the waters can significantly deprive the stocks. The average female redfish produces 20 to 40 million eggs per spawning season, according to research from the LSU Agricultural Center.  

Removing the state’s allowance for a single bull red could help the population rebound. Other options would include adjusting the current minimum size to 18 inches or reducing the daily creel limit, though anglers have generally been reluctant to support such changes. 

Allain’s resolution currently has the support of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, which represents many recreational anglers and fishing charter captains. 

“Bull reds [and] redfish in general seem to be in trouble in Louisiana,” CCA President David Cresson said. “I can attest to that personally… We’ve talked to charter captains across the state, we’ve talked to recreational anglers. This is a very popular maneuver here.”

Louisiana’s most favored fish, speckled trout, is in even greater danger of overfishing. In February, LDWF officials told lawmakers the species has reached its lowest population levels ever recorded. Despite the warnings, lawmakers have so far rejected adjusting the speckled trout limits in large part because of opposition from charter boat captains.

Allain’s resolution is just a request and has no force of law, but it does signal legislative support for a new redfish limit before the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.

“We’ve presented the info to our commission, and we’ll be visiting again with them in the coming months to go over some options to recover the stock,” LDWF Assistant Secretary of Fisheries Patrick Banks said.


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots to 1997 when, at age 13, he built a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. Since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune and worked on staff at WAFB/CBS, the Sun Herald and the Enterprise-Journal, winning awards from the SPJ, Associated Press, Mississippi Press Association and McClatchy. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Muller is a New Orleans native, Jesuit High School alumnus, University of New Orleans alumnus and a U.S. Army veteran and former paratrooper. He lives in Southeast Louisiana with his two sons and wife.