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 6.5 million pounds of croaker were landed in 2018, with approximately 57% landed by the commercial sector and 43% harvested by recreational anglers. This represents a 27% decline in total landings from 2017 and an 86% decline in total landings from the 1981-2018 time series peak in 2003. Virginia harvested the majority of croaker, with approximately 60% of the total harvest.
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 3.7 million pounds in 2018.
From 1981-2018, recreational landings from New Jersey through Florida have varied between 7.1 million fish and 21.7 million fish. Landings general increased until 2001, and were fairly stable from 2001-2013 before exhibiting a declining trend from 2013 through 2018. 2018 landings are estimated at 7.1 million fish, the lowest recreational harvest in the time series. The number of recreational releases has increased and, more recently, declined over the time series. In 2018, anglers released roughly 23.9 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 approach (TLA) is used to annually 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 reference period (1996-2008) average, the proportion of green in a given year increases, and as harvest decreases, the amount of red in that year increases. The TLA illustrates long-term trends in the stock and triggers management action 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.
In August 2018, the TLA was presented to the Board using both the current and Technical Committee-recommended methods. The current method showed similar results of increasing adult abundance with declining harvest but did not trigger management action. The results of the Technical Committee-recommended method, which included all proposed changes, would trigger management action due to significant declines in harvest and adult abundance in the Mid-Atlantic (north of Virginia-North Carolina border) region. In May 2019, an addendum was initiated to adjust and redefine management responses to the TLA in preparation for incorporating the TC-recommended methods.
Atlantic croaker are managed under Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Croaker (2005) and Addenda I and II (2011 and 2014). 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. 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.
In August 2014, the South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board approved Addendum II to Amendment 1 to the FMP for Atlantic Croaker. The Addendum 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.
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.
In October 2019, the Commission’s South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board released two documents for public comment: Draft Addendum III to Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Croaker and Draft Addendum III to the Omnibus Amendment to the Interstate FMPs for Spanish Mackerel, Spot, and Spotted Seatrout. The Board initiated the development of the Draft Addenda to incorporate updates on the annual traffic light approach (TLA) and propose changes to the management program. In the absence of an approved stock assessment, which is the case for both species, the TLA is conducted each year to evaluate fishery trends and develop management actions (e.g. bag limits, size restrictions, time and area closures, and gear restrictions) when harvest and abundance thresholds are exceeded. The TLA assigns a color (red, yellow, or green) to categorize relative levels of indicators on the condition of the fish population or fishery. For example, as harvest or abundance increases relative to its long-term average, the proportion of green in a given year will increase and as harvest or abundance decreases, the amount of red in that year will increase. The Board annually evaluates the proportion of red against threshold levels to determine if management action is required. In recent years, fisheries for both Atlantic croaker and spot have experienced declines in harvest, but not declines in abundance as indicated by fishery-independent surveys used in the TLA. Therefore, management action has not been triggered. The lack of triggering management action with these harvest declines has raised concerns, leading to re-evaluation of TLA methods and the proposal of changes to management.
Both Draft Addenda present updates to resolve issues with the TLA analyses in order to better reflect stock characteristics, based on recommendations from the Atlantic Croaker Technical Committee and Spot Plan Review Team. Each Draft Addendum also presents options for four issues that address the TLA management triggering mechanism, triggered management responses for the recreational and commercial fisheries, and evaluation of the population’s response to triggered management actions. The Board will meet at the Commission’s Winter Meeting in February to review public comment and consider final approval of the Addenda.