Photo credit: Aaron Game
The historic distribution of red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) on the Atlantic coast is from Massachusetts through Florida, though few fish have been reported north of the Chesapeake Bay in recent years. Juveniles are most abundant in estuarine waters and inlets, while fish older than age four inhabit deeper waters. The adult fish migrate seasonally, moving offshore or south in the winter and inshore or north in the spring. Spawning occurs at night in the nearshore waters during the summer and fall. Prolific spawners, large females may produce up to two million eggs in a season. Eggs hatch within 24 to 36 hours of being spawned, and the larvae are carried by wind and tidal action into shallow, low salinity estuarine nursery areas. Juveniles and sub-adults stay in estuarine areas feeding on zooplankton and invertebrates such as small crabs and shrimp. Gradually, red drum expand their diet to include fish and larger invertebrates. Depending on the area, males mature between age one and four (20-28 inches in length), while females mature between age three and six (31-36 inches in length). Red drum may reach 60 years of age and 60 inches in length (corresponding to greater than 90 pounds in weight).
Red drum are one of the most recreationally sought-after fish throughout the South Atlantic, with the majority of Southern states reserving red drum harvest strictly for recreational anglers. Red drum are divided into two management areas or stocks along the Atlantic coast, a northern stock (from New Jersey to North Carolina) and a southern stock (from South Carolina to Florida). The stock units are based on differences in life history traits between the two stocks (such as growth rates and maximum observed ages) and information from genetic and tagging studies indicating red drum rarely move between the two regions.
Red drum landings from New Jersey through the east coast of Florida in 2021 are estimated at 6.2 million pounds. In 2021, 55% of the total landings came from the southern region where the fishery is exclusively recreational, and 45% from the northern region, similar to 2020 when 56% of the total landings came from the southern region and 44% from the northern region. These shifts are a significant change from the 2019 regional landings split, which were 20% from the northern region and 80% from the southern region.
Red drum landings in the northern region totaled 2.8 million pounds in 2021, increasing less than 1% from the previous year. Commercial landings totaled 218,476 pounds or 8% of the combined commercial and recreational harvest in the northern region, with 92% of commercial landings coming from North Carolina. This is a 26% increase in commercial landings from 2020.
Recreational landings in 2021 were estimated to be 2.6 million pounds in the northern region, a slight increase from the previous year’s estimates of recreational harvest at 2.5 million pounds. North Carolina and Virginia make up a large portion of northern recreational landings.
The southern region had no commercial landings; Florida commercial harvest has been prohibited since January 1988. South Carolina and Georgia designated red drum as a gamefish, banning commercial harvest and sale since 1987 and 2013, respectively.
Recreational landings in 2021 were estimated to be 3.4 million pounds in the southern region, similar to 2020 estimates which were 3.3 million pounds. Florida, followed by Georgia, had the majority of recreational landings in 2021. The number of fish harvested in the recreational fishery in 2021 was 1.2 million fish, a 15% increase from 2020. The number of fish released also increased by 40% compared to 2020 with 7.4 million fish released in the southern region in 2021.
The 2017 Red Drum Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report indicate overfishing is not occurring for red drum for either the northern or southern stocks. The assessment was unable to determine an overfished/not overfished status because population abundance could not be reliably estimated due to limited data for the older fish (ages 4+) that are not typically harvested due to the current fishery measures (slot-limits). The Board accepted the stock assessment and peer review report for management use. No management action was taken at this time since overfishing is not occurring.
The assessment estimates annual static spawning potential ratios (sSPR) measured against previously established reference points for red drum. Overfishing is occurring if the three-year average sSPR is less than a threshold of 30%, with a management target of 40% sSPR. sSPR is a measure of spawning stock biomass survival rates when fished at the current years’ fishing mortality rate relative to the spawning stock biomass survival rates if no fishing mortality was occurring. In 2013 (the last year for which data were available), the three-year (2011-2013) average sSPR was 43.8% for the northern stock and 53.5% for the southern stock, both above the target and threshold values.
Recruitment (age-1) has fluctuated around averages of 476,579 and 1.57 million fish in the northern and southern stocks, respectively. In more recent years, the largest recruitment occurred in 2012 for the northern stock and 2010 for the southern stock.
Red drum is currently undergoing a new stock assessment. The Board approved the development of a new methodology to simulate the full red drum population. The simulated population was used to test a variety of assessment modeling techniques to determine which model would be the most applicable for the next benchmark stock assessment. A peer review workshop for the Simulation Assessment was held in late March 2022, and the Peer Review Panel made recommendations on the model(s) best suited for the next benchmark stock assessment. The Sciaenids Management Board approved the Simulation Assessment and Peer Review Report in May 2022. The red drum benchmark stock assessment is on track to be completed in 2024.
Red drum are managed by the Commission through Amendment 2 to the Interstate FMP and Addendum I. The Amendment requires states to implement recreational creel and size limits to achieve the fishing mortality target, including a maximum size limit of 27 inches, and maintain existing commercial regulations. A harvest moratorium and Presidential Executive Order, enacted in 2007, prevents any harvest or sale of red drum from federal waters.
Addendum I (2013) seeks to increase our knowledge base and aid in the protection of important red drum habitat. It updates Amendment 2’s habitat section to include current information on red drum spawning habitat and habitat by life stage (egg, larval, juvenile, sub-adult, and adult). It also identifies and describes the distribution of key habitats and habitats of concern, including threats, habitat bottlenecks (habitat or habitat characteristics that limit the sustainability or recovery of red drum), and ecosystem considerations.
In March 2017, a report on Sciaenid Fish Habitat was released including information on habitat for several species, including red drum, 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 FMPs in the future for these species.