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. Their name is derived from croaking noises they make during the spawning season by vibrating their abdominal muscles against their swim bladder. 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.
Sought by recreational anglers and commercial fishermen alike, an estimated three million pounds of croaker were landed in 2021. The commercial and recreational fisheries harvested 32% and 68% of the 2021 total, respectively, which was similar to 2020 when the recreational fishery also harvested a majority (84%) of the total Atlantic croaker harvest. This represents a large shift from the previous 10 year average spilt, of 52% and 47%, respectively, from 2010 to 2019. Virginia harvested the majority of croaker recreationally while North Carolina harvested the majority of commercial landings.
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 28.6 million pounds in 2001; however, landings have declined consistently since 2003 to a time series low of 806,000 pounds in 2020. Commercial landings increased by 21% in 2021, to 972,000 pounds, the second lowest value in the time series.
From 1981-2021, recreational landings from New Jersey through Florida have varied between between 5.2 million fish in 2021 and 36.2 million fish in 1986. Landings generally increased until 2001, and held stable from 2001-2006 before exhibiting a declining trend from 2007 through 2021. 2021 landings are estimated at 5.2 million fish and 2.0 million pounds. The number of recreational releases generally increased over the time series until 2013 when releases steadily declined until 2018, when a time series low of 18.1 million fish were released. From 2018 through 2021, releases have overall been increasing again. In 2021, anglers released roughly 27.5 million fish.
In 2017, a benchmark stock assessment was completed. This assessment used a stock synthesis model to address a major source of uncertainty from previous assessments – the magnitude of croaker bycatch in South Atlantic shrimp trawls. However, due to conflicting trends in abundance and harvest, as well as other uncertainties, this assessment was not recommended for management use.
A traffic light analysis (TLA) is typically conducted each year to evaluate fishery trends and develop state-specific management actions (e.g. bag limits, size restrictions, time and area closures, and gear restrictions) when harvest and abundance thresholds are exceeded for three consecutive years. The name comes from assigning a color (red, yellow or green) to categorize relative levels of indicators that reflect the condition of the fish population (abundance metric) or fishery (harvest metric). For example, as harvest increases relative to the long-term mean, the proportion of green in a given year increases, and as harvest decreases, the amount of red in that year becomes more predominant. The TLA improves the management approach as it illustrates long-term trends in the stock and includes specific management recommendations in response to declines in the stock or fishery.
Similar to the benchmark assessment, recent TLA runs showed conflicting trends, with significant decreases in overall harvest but increases in adult abundance and some juvenile abundance. Based on these conflicting trends (theoretically, an increase in abundance should lead to an increase in harvest), the Technical Committee evaluated the TLA and recommended several adjustments, including incorporation of additional abundance surveys, application of age-length keys and length compositions to all abundance surveys to better estimate the number of adults, use of regional rather than coastwide metrics, a new reference time period, and a new triggering mechanism. These adjustments were made in Addendum III, which the Board approved in February 2020.
In October 2020, the TLA was presented to the Board using both the current and Technical Committee-recommended methods. The TLA showed similar results of declining adult abundance with declining harvest and triggered management action. The results of the Technical Committee -recommended method, which included all proposed changes, triggered management action due to significant declines in harvest and adult abundance in the Mid-Atlantic (north of Virginia-North Carolina border) region. States that are considered non de minimis were required to begin immediate management action as outlined in Addendum III. This includes a recreational bag limit of 50 fish per person per day and a reduction in commercial harvest of 1% from the states 10 year average.
In the most recent TLA, presented in August of 2022, adult abundance status was unknown in both the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic. This is due primarily to fishery independent survey data unavailability. The Atlantic Croaker Technical Committee recommended maintaining current management measures until 2023 when all fishery independent survey data are expected to be available again, and the Atlantic croaker TLA can be reevaluated.
Atlantic croaker are managed under Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Croaker (2005) and Addenda I, II, and III (2011, 2014, 2020). The Amendment did not require any specific measures restricting harvest but encouraged 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. Addendum I revises the management program's biological reference points to assess stock condition on a coastwide basis as recommended by the 2010 stock assessment.
Addendum II to Amendment I to the Atlantic Croaker Fishery Management Plan (FMP) established a 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.
Addendum III to Amendment I to the FMP adjusted the TLA to incorporate additional fishery-independent indices, age information, use of regional characteristics, and changes to the management triggering mechanisms. Management triggers and responses include bag limits for the recreational fishery and percentage harvest reductions from a 10 year average for the commercial fishery. The response will be defined by which percent threshold (30% or 60%) that was exceeded in any of the 3 out of 4 terminal years.
Additionally, in March 2017, a report on Sciaenid Fish Habitat was released including information on habitat for several species, including Atlantic croaker, during all stages of their lives, their associated Essential Fish Habitats and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, threats and uncertainties to their habitats, and recommendations for habitat management and research. This report is meant to be a resource when amending future species FMPs.