TAG Alabama Provides Vital Trout, Redfish Information
By DAVID RAINER / Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Thanks to a tagging program launched by CCA Alabama in 2017, fishermen in Alabama who target brook trout and rockfish know much more about the movement and growth of these prized coastal species.
The TAG Alabama program, compiled and analyzed by the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Southern Alabama (US) and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, calls on members of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) to mark trout and redfish (red drum) and rewards anglers who file a report after the recapture of a tagged fish.
For the first time in a year due to COVID restrictions, CCA Alabama was able to hold tagging seminars last week in Birmingham and Daphne to give interested anglers advice on how to properly tag fish to ensure that trout and redfish are not injured and the tagging is properly secured.
CCA Alabama Executive Director Blakeley Ellis and U.S. graduate student Dylan Kiene have teamed up to provide instruction on safe tagging techniques and an update on tagging program data.
Kiene, who studies several inshore species at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s fisheries ecology lab, said speckled trout appear to be a constant traveler, but rockfish are unpredictable.
“We had a tagged redfish at Dauphin Island that got to Pensacola in about 30 days,” Kiene said. “We had a tagged redfish near one of the islands in the Mobile River that made it to Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana in 130 days. On the other hand, we had a red drum which was performed three times by Captain Richard Rutland in the same place, the first time in 2017 and twice in 2018. “
Kiene said his program predecessor, Reid Nelson, observed little to no red drum movement in some spots.
“When Reid was doing acoustic work on the red drum, he was tagging fish in the Dog and Fowl rivers,” Kiene said. “One of the things you look for when doing acoustics is if a tag is constantly detected on the same receiver, you can assume the fish is dead. That’s what he thought until some of the fish were recaptured in the same spot. They were literally less than 100 yards from where they had been marked. They had enough food. They were happy.
“But the speckled trout are basically always on the move. You’ll catch them in the same places at the same time of year, but they’re still moving.
New to the Tag Alabama program is the male redfish brand that was presented to participants last week. Fish over 26 inches are considered red bulls, but Kiene would prefer to see anglers tag fish 30 inches and larger.
“With the red bull tags, once we get enough out of them, it will be really interesting to see if these fish go offshore where they are supposed to breed or go up in the delta,” Kiene said.
Ellis said CCA Alabama also recently approved funding for USA Marine Sciences to conduct an offshore red bull study with acoustic beacons and satellites.
Anglers participating in the TAG Alabama program can report tagging data through the Fishing Chaos app, at tags.usouthal.edu, which is best used on a computer, or 1-800 -372-5950. Kiene said the Fishing Chaos app scrambles the fisherman’s tag catch location data to keep this information private.
Ellis said the tagging program was only for legal size fish. For speckled trout, the minimum total length is 15 inches. For redfish, the minimum total length is 16 inches. According to him, when a fish is recaptured, two reports are emailed, one to the fisherman who tagged the fish and one to the fisherman who recaptured the fish.
“Our recovery rate in Alabama is pretty high,” Ellis said. “I think this is due to a more educated group of anglers at the seminars causing more tags to remain in the fish, thus increasing the chances of recapturing tagged fish.”
Since its inception, TAG Alabama has tagged 2,615 rockfish with 424 recaptures for a 16% recapture rate, Ellis said. For speckled trout, 2,364 fish were tagged with a recapture of 206 fish for a recapture rate of 8.7 percent.
“It’s actually a very high recovery rate,” Kiene said. “For larger tagging programs, a 4-5% recapture rate is what they normally see. This red drum recapture rate is extremely high. Rockfish are mostly homebody and tend to stay in the same areas. These areas also tend to be under high fishing pressure and more fish are caught. The speckled trout move a lot more and are a bit more difficult to catch compared to the red drum. “
Ellis said TAG Alabama has been a big success for CCA Alabama.
“This is a great opportunity for citizen science to have anglers participating in the research,” said Ellis. “This type of program involves more people and is more effective at tagging fish. “
On the tagging side, the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) funded Kiene and the Fisheries Ecology Lab to capture and tag southern plaice, a species that has experienced significant decline over the past 10 years. last years. In 2019, the MRD increased the minimum total length to 14 inches for flounder with a catch limit of five fish per person. The harvest of plaice for recreational and commercial fishermen is prohibited throughout the month of November to protect fish that migrate to spawn.
“We are acoustically tagging southern plaice in the fall in Mobile Bay,” Kiene said. “We have an acoustic set of receivers. When the tagged fish is within range of the receiver, it is actually recording that fish’s information. We have the entire mobile bay encapsulated with the receivers. We tag these fish in the fall to see how many of these fish are actually migrating offshore. We also collect otoliths (ear bones) for age information, and we do reproductive work. “
Kiene said females of southern plaice grow considerably larger than males, which are no larger than 13 inches and spend most of their lives offshore.
“We went out in the fall to the upper parts of Mobile Bay, catching these fish on hook and line and putting in acoustic tags,” he said. “In 2019, we scored 67 plaice, including 55 in Mobile Bay. In 2020, we ended up with 70 tagged. This year we’re going to try to score 100. We don’t have all of the data for 2020, but we have the data for 2019. About 30 percent of the plaice we have tagged leave Mobile Bay. And we also mark the big flounder. We had them six and seven pounds. We even got a 10 pound. It was an incredible fish. But we won’t know how many fish are going offshore until we have several years of data. “
An interesting aspect of the study of tagging plaice is that they seem to have a salmon-like instinct.
“The big fish leave the rivers in late fall and come back about six months later,” Kiene said. “These fish are returning to the exact same rivers that they were originally tagged with. It’s a characteristic that we call homing, much like salmon. This is another part of fishing that is not fully understood – how fish understand it, whether it is water chemistry or magnetism or whatever.
“We are bringing all of this together to research the decline in fishing and how we can bring it back to at least close to where it once was.”
MRD Director Scott Bannon said the tagging efforts of TAG Alabama and the Fisheries Ecology Lab go a long way in the management of these species.
“Coastal tagging programs provide valuable data on the movement of fish throughout the seasons in addition to providing data on catch effort,” said Bannon. “The data collected in tagging programs is valuable because it helps us in our management decisions. The more people who participate and the more fish are tagged, it only increases the flow of valuable data. “