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How Winter Temps Can Affect Spring Fishing

Spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), caught off the coast of North Carolina. Photo: Tim Ellis

Reprinted from NC State News

Cold winter weather can play a key role in what you’re allowed to fish for next spring. That point was driven home when low temperatures in early January led North Carolina to temporarily bar fishing for spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus), one of the most popular targets for recreational anglers.

Stories about isolated fish kills, or “cold stuns,” of spotted sea trout due to cold temperatures date back more than 100 years. But no one knew just how important these cold stuns could be until 2017, when North Carolina State University researchers published new findings on population impacts.

“We had a lot of anecdotes about spotted seatrout, but in order to make good fishery management decisions, you need quantifiable, scientific data,” said Tim Ellis, an ecosystems analyst for the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, or APNEP, who did research on cold stuns and spotted seatrout while a Ph.D. student at NC State.

Ellis, in collaboration with Joe Hightower and Jeff Buckel of NC State, collected data on the spotted seatrout fisheries in North Carolina and Virginia from 2008 through 2014, work that ultimately led to three publications in 2017 and 2018 that address the impact low temperatures can have on the species. And that impact can be significant.

Tim Ellis researched cold stuns and spotted seatrout while a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University. Photo: LinkedIn

“The full extent of this month’s cold stun is not yet known, but conditions seemed comparable to what we saw in 2010 – and that year’s cold temperatures led to around 95 percent mortality in spotted seatrout populations in North Carolina and Virginia,” Ellis said.

That’s a big deal, because spotted seatrout are one of the most sought-after species by recreational anglers in North Carolina  – and throughout the southeastern U.S.

“In terms of dollars and cents, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries estimates that the recreational fishery for spotted seatrout in North Carolina alone, had a total economic impact of more than $54 million in 2016,” Ellis said.

The importance of this fishery, and the N.C. State findings, are likely why the Division of Marine Fisheries announced Jan. 5 that it was barring commercial and recreational fishing of spotted seatrout in North Carolina waters until June 15, after the species has passed its peak spawning season.

Most spotted seatrout overwinter in shallow, estuarine waters, where water temperatures are strongly affected by the air temperature. That makes the species particularly susceptible to cold snaps like those we saw in the first weeks of 2018.

“In mild winters, spotted seatrout populations can thrive in North Carolina waters,” Ellis said. “But high mortality during cold winters means it could take a while for the fishery to rebound. The fishery is being closed in North Carolina to protect the remaining spawners, in hopes that this will help the species bounce back more quickly.”

“Until Tim decided to take a look, nobody knew how important cold temperatures could be for spotted seatrout at the population level,” Buckel said.

“Ultimately, our research is making a difference,” Ellis said. “We gave fishery managers key information they needed to make informed decisions about how to respond to cold-stun events.”

The three relevant papers are “Relating cold tolerance to winterkill for spotted seatrout at its northern latitudinal limits,” published February 2017 in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology; “Winter severity influences spotted seatrout mortality in a southeast US estuarine system,” published February 2017 in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series; and “Relative importance of fishing and natural mortality for spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) estimated from a tag-return model and corroborated with survey data,” published in January 2018 by the journal Fisheries Research.

The research was done with support from North Carolina Sea Grant (No. 08-FEG-06) and the N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License Fund (N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Task Order #2226).

NC State News is published by North Carolina State University and reports breaking news, feature stories and reports from the forefront of education and discovery.

About the Author

Matt Shipman

Matt Shipman is research communications lead at North Carolina State University. Matt covers the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Poole College of Management and the College of Engineering for the university's News Services, including NC State News. He also a freelance writer and communications consultant, a contributor to Health News Review, author of the "Handbook for Science Public Information Officers" (University of Chicago Press, 2015), and contributor to "Science Blogging: The Essential Guide" (Yale University Press, 2016).