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. It is a nearshore fishery, targeting small, “puppy drum” in shallow estuarine waters and large trophy fish along the Mid- and South Atlantic barrier islands. Recreational harvest initially peaked in 1984 at 2.6 million pounds and harvest has fluctuated without trend since 1988 between 800,000-2.1 million pounds. The 2014 recreational landings of 2.34 million pounds was well above the ten year average of 1.7 million pounds. Florida anglers landed the largest share of recreational harvest in numbers (43%) followed by North Carolina (18%).
The commercial fishery is largely dominated by North Carolina, which was responsible for 88% of commercial harvest in 2014. Commercial landings have declined since the 1980s. In 2014, coastwide commercial landings were roughly 103,000 pounds, a nearly 300,000 pound decrease from 2013.
Red drum captured as part of the SEAMAP-South Atlantic Longline Survey, with the goal of providing a fishery-independent index of adult red drum abundance. Photo credit: Bryan Frazier, SC DNR.
The 2009 peer-reviewed stock assessment indicates that abundance of young fish for both the northern (NJ - NC) and southern (SC - FL) stock complexes have remained relatively stable since 2000. The stock assessment concluded that sufficient numbers of young fish are surviving to move offshore and join the adult spawning population, indicating that overfishing is likely not occurring.
Data limitations resulting from red drum's life history characteristics and management regime present unique challenges to scientists as they try to assess the status of the stock. Relatively little is known about the adult (spawning) population of red drum (ages 4 and older) as these fish are primarily found in offshore waters where fishing for red drum is prohibited under federal law. As such, there is little fishery-dependent information on the larger, reproductive fish and limited fishery-independent data. Existing data are largely for the juvenile component of the resource (ages 1 - 3) found in inshore waters. Fishery-dependent data are constrained by the fisheries slot limit, which ranges any- where from 14 to 27 inches (again limiting the amount of information about larger fish) and fishery-independent data are supplied by multiple state inshore surveys. The end result of these limitations is a stock assessment that adequately describes abundance and exploitation rates for the pre-adult component of the population (ages 1 - 3), particularly for the northern region, but provides no reliable information on the adult component.
Additionally, the stock assessment model was considered to be informative only about the relative, not absolute, trends in age 1 - 3 abundance and exploitation. Therefore, only general conclusions about trends in stock status could be provided and total stock biomass cannot be estimated.
Throughout 2015, the Red Drum Stock Assessment Subcommittee (SASC) worked on a new benchmark stock assessment for red drum. A primary goal of the assessment was to provide greater clarity as to the status of the stock’s northern and southern components. While the previous assessment was able to determine that overfishing was not occurring, it was not able to determine whether either stock component was overfished. To this end, SASC decided to develop a new stock synthesis model (SS3) for red drum. SS3 was chosen because it allows for the incorporation of additional data (e.g., tag-recapture information) which can provide a reliable estimate of fishing mortality and biomass for both the northern and southern stocks.
During the transition to SS3, the SASC encountered several challenges in developing a model to estimate plausible stock conditions and dynamics. A specific concern was the lack of stability in both the northern and southern models. Given that these issues persisted after the assessment workshop in June, the SASC determined the most beneficial function of the Review Workshop was to draw from the Peer Review Panel’s experience to make model improvements during and following the workshop.
The SEDAR 44 workshop was a collaborative effort focusing on model development, where panelists reviewed the assessment work to date and provided constructive comments on modifications to SS3 for both the southern and northern stock models. SACS continued work on the stock assessment following the Review Workshop and was able to make significant improvements to the model. Work by the SASC will be completed and desk reviewed by the end of 2015. Final model runs will be presented to the South Atlantic Board in 2016.
Red drum are managed solely by the Commission through Amendment 2 to the Interstate FMP. 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, approved in 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.