Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulates) are a bottom-dwelling species, in the same family as red drum and weakfish. They can be found from the Gulf of Maine to Argentina, but along the US Atlantic coast, they are most abundant from the Chesapeake Bay to northern Florida. They get their name from the croaking noises they make by vibrating their abdominal muscles against their swim bladder as part of their mating ritual during spawning season.
Atlantic croaker spawn in warm pelagic waters during the fall and winter months, and the larvae and juveniles settle in estuaries to mature. The Chesapeake Bay is an important spawning and nursery habitat for croaker. Most Atlantic croaker are mature by the end of their first year. They grow quickly and may reach sizes of over 20”. The world record for Atlantic croaker is 8 lbs 11 oz. The oldest observed age is 17 years, but it is uncommon to see fish older than 10 years in the catch.
Total Atlantic croaker harvest from New Jersey through the east coast of Florida in 2014 is estimated at 10.08 million pounds. This represents a 75% decline in total harvest since the peak of 41.2 million pounds in 2001 (77% commercial decline, 72% recreational decline). The commercial and recreational fisheries harvested 70% and 30% of the total, respectively. The vast majority of landings are from the Mid-Atlantic region (97% in 2014), and the recent decline in total landings is a result of both commercial and recreational landings declines in that region, although some states showed increases in either or both sector. Commercial and recreational landings in the South Atlantic region have been generally stable over the last decade; however, 2010 showed large decreases in the recreational harvest. Recreational and commercial harvests in the South Atlantic region rose to 2.7% of coastwide harvest in 2014 from 2.3% in 2013.
Atlantic coast commercial landings of Atlantic croaker exhibit a cyclical pattern, with low landings in the 1960s to early 1970s and the 1980s to early 1990s, and high landings in the mid-to-late 1970s and the mid-1990s to 2011. Commercial landings increased from a low of 3.7 million pounds in 1991 to 30.1 million pounds in 2001; however, landings have declined consistently since 2003 to 7 million pounds in 2014, which falls below the 1960-2014 average of 13.45 million pounds. Within the management unit, the majority of 2014 commercial landings came from Virginia (49%) and North Carolina (37%). Maryland had the next highest level, with 7% of coastwide landings.
From 1981-2014, recreational landings from New Jersey through Florida have varied between 2.8 million fish (1.3 million pounds) and 13.2 million fish (11.1 million pounds). Landings general increased until 2001, and held stable from 2001-2006 before exhibiting a declining trend from 2007 through 2014. 2014 landings are estimated at 6.2 million fish and 3.06 million pounds. Virginia was responsible for 55% of the 2014 recreational landings, in numbers of fish, followed by Maryland (17.5%), and Delaware (5.8%). This is change from 2013 when New Jersey accounted for 11% of recreational catch, in numbers of fish. The number of recreational releases has increased over the time series, but appears to be in decline since 2008. In 2014, anglers released roughly 10 million fish, a decline from the 14 million fish released in 2013. Anglers released an estimated 62% of the croaker catch in 2014.
The 2010 peer-reviewed stock assessment for Atlantic croaker indicates that the resource is not experiencing overfishing. Although model estimates of spawning stock biomass were too uncertain to be used to precisely determine overfished stock status, biomass has been increasing and the age-structure of the population has been expanding since the late 1980s. Atlantic croaker are now managed as a single stock on the Atlantic coast. The previous stock assessment divided the stock into Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions and assessed only the Mid-Atlantic region. The most recent assessment used data from both regions to produce a single, coastwide assessment. The next benchmark stock assessment is planned for 2016.
Atlantic croaker are managed under Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Croaker (2005) and Addendum I (2011). The Amendment does not require any specific measures restricting harvest but encourages states with conservative measures to maintain them. It also implemented a set of management triggers, based on an annual review of certain metrics, to respond to changes in the fishery or resource and initiate a formal stock assessment on an accelerated timeline if necessary. The Addendum revises the management program's biological reference points to assess stock condition on a coastwide basis as recommended by the 2010 stock assessment.
In August 2014, the South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board approved Addendun II to Amendment I to the Atlantic Croaker Fishery Management Plan (FMP). The Addendum establishes a new management framework (i.e., Traffic Light Approach or TLA) to evaluate fisheries trends and develop state-specified management actions (i.e., bag limits, size restrictions, time & area closures, and gear restrictions) when harvest and abundance thresholds are exceeded.The TLA is a statistically-robust way to incorporate multiple data sources (both fishery-independent and -dependent) into a single, easily understood metric for management advice. It is often used for data-poor species, or species which are not assessed on a frequent basis, such as blue crabs in North Carolina and snow crabs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As such, its serves as an excellent management tool for spot, which has not been assessed on a coastwide basis and Atlantic croaker, which was last assessed in 2010.
The name comes from assigning a color (red, yellow, or green) to categorize relative levels of indicators on the condition of the fish population (abundance metric) or fishery (harvest metric). For example, as harvest or abundance increase relative to their long-term mean, the proportion of green in a given year will increase and as harvest or abundance decrease, the amount of red in that year becomes more predominant. Under the Addendum, state-specific management action would be initiated when the proportion of red exceeds the specified thresholds (for both harvest and abundance) over three consecutive years.
The current management triggers for Atlantic croaker compare annual changes in various indices (e.g. recent landings and survey information) to review trends in the fisheries. The Atlantic Croaker Technical Committee expressed concern that this annual review did not illustrate long-term trends in the stock nor did it include specific management measures to implement in response to declines in the stock or fishery. The adopted TLA management framework replaces the current management triggers. The TLA framework will be in place until the next benchmark stock assessment, currently scheduled for 2016.