Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Big Plans for Small Fry Redfish Stock Project Seeks Big Dividends

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Big Plans for Small Fry Redfish Stock Project Seeks Big Dividends

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Julavits, Times-Union outdoors editor

PORT MANATEE -- Researchers are hoping that Project Tampa Bay, a redfish stocking program using hatchery-reared fish, will be the catalyst for similar programs throughout the state, including Northeast Florida.

But first the project, under the direction of marine biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, must show positive results in a relatively new scientific arena where results are difficult to gauge.

"Our challenge is to convince the commission, the governor and the Legislature that this is a workable project," said Bill Halstead, manager of the FWC's Stock Enhancement Research Facility at Port Manatee south of Tampa.

"Once we do that, we anticipate there will be a statewide expansion of this project."

Expansion could benefit both fish populations and fishermen. As a fisheries management tool, the stocking of hatchery reds could be used to restore local populations depleted by natural or man-made causes. Stockings could complement the use of bag and size limits currently in effect, and perhaps even lead to increased bag limits if populations warrant.

Stocking saltwater species, though, is still something of a science in infancy.

"It's very much experimental, so different from historical forms of stock enhancement," Halstead said. "In the grand scheme of things, we're releasing fish into the open ocean, fish that are a migratory species.

"When a freshwater biologist raises sunshine bass or largemouth bass in a pond or lake, they can't go anywhere. But these fish can go anywhere, and that's what makes tagging and genetics so important."

Project Tampa Bay, a partnership between the FWC's Florida Marine Research Institute and the private Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, began last year and is expected to continue for 3-5 years. To date, about 550,000 juvenile redfish -- reared at the Port Manatee hatchery -- have been released into the bay. The Port Manatee facility is the only state-run saltwater fish hatchery.

"We have two objectives -- increase the catch rate by anglers in Tampa Bay, and to more clearly determine what size fish to release and where to release them to get the optimum bang for the buck," Halstead said.

The project is funded mostly by public money, primarily from the state's recreational saltwater fishing license fees.

Several other states, including Texas and South Carolina, have redfish stocking programs, but there seems to be no single template that guarantees or measures success.

Researchers from the FWC and Mote are experimenting with releasing 1-, 3- and 6-inch fish into Tampa Bay. The smaller reds are less expensive to rear, while the bigger fish survive better in the wild.

For tracking purposes, coded microwire tags are implanted in the cheek muscles of 3- and 6-inch fish at the hatchery. …

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