Travel & Outdoors

How a Battle Between Recreational and Commercial Fishermen Spawned a Conservation Movement

fishing redfish wars

Illustration by Lucy Engelman

This article is part of our May 2020 “The Great Texas Fishing Safari” package. Read more here.

On fall and winter nights through the better part of the twentieth century, Rudy Grigar would wade into Galveston Bay and listen to the roar of the redfish. Swimming in schools up to five hundred strong, they sounded to him like freight trains churning through the dark. “The closer they got,” he recalled in a 1997 memoir, “the louder the noise.”

Occasionally, the schools would plow right into Grigar, a pioneer of wade-fishing in Texas, thumping against his legs and chest as he cast in the moonlight, trying his best to land two or three on a silver spoon lure before they swept past. Then he’d wait for another school to come along. “I’d repeat the process until I had a full stringer,” Grigar wrote in Plugger: Wade Fishing the Gulf Coast, a book that remains a saltwater-angling bible long after Grigar’s death in 2001 at age 86.

Grigar, who owned a tackle shop in Houston, had been fishing the state’s shallow bays and estuaries since the Great Depression. In the early seventies, he was still landing countless bounties of redfish, also known as red drum, and up to a hundred speckled trout in a day. By the end of that decade, though, the glory days had come to an end. Trout were in steep decline, and more than half of the redfish had disappeared.

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Grigar blamed one culprit: commercial fishermen wielding lethally effective nets. “Netters,” he called them. Convinced that reds and specks were on the verge of extinction—the bison of the bays—Grigar hosted a gathering of fourteen anglers at his tackle shop on February 15, 1977. The movement that grew out of that meeting would quickly spark an ugly fight between recreational and commercial fishermen and ultimately spawn a conservation revolution that would change Texas fishing forever. The Redfish Wars had begun.

Calling themselves the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, the recreational anglers who’d convened at Grigar’s tackle shop that day began raising money and lobbying state lawmakers to protect red drum and trout. They were powerful and well-connected. The group tapped Walter Fondren III, a former star of the Texas Longhorns football team, to serve as founding chairman. Fondren was an avid fisherman whose grandfather was the founder of Humble Oil. Early GCCA members included Perry Bass, an oil heir whose family owns all of San José Island, a barrier island near Port Aransas, and Bob Brister, then the influential outdoors editor of the Houston Chronicle.

GCCA set its sights on the commercial netters whose fence-like gill nets they reviled for emptying Texas’s bays and estuaries of redfish. Hundreds of miles of nets, they argued, were plucking thousands of mature “bull reds” from the water before they had a chance to produce enough offspring. Today, many people also blame the Gulf’s plummeting numbers of red drum on the late New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, who launched a culinary craze for blackened redfish when he invented the recipe in the early eighties. In fact, red drum started vanishing from the coast years before Prudhomme thought to sear butter-drenched filets on smoking-hot cast iron. From 1976 to 1979, Texas’s commercial harvest of redfish dropped 65 percent, while trout landings fell more than 40 percent.

“Quite simply, there are too many people fishing a depleted resource,” Bob Kemp, TPWD’s fisheries director and a GCCA ally, concluded at the time. “There no longer are, or will be again, in my opinion, enough trout and redfish to meet the demands of both the commercial finfish industry and the recreational fishing industry.”

The sport anglers comprising the GCCA (later named the Coastal Conservation Association after the group spread to the East and West Coasts) promptly scored a modest victory when the Texas Legislature passed the Red Drum Conservation Act of 1977, which capped the daily harvest of red drum at ten per recreational angler and two hundred pounds for commercial fishermen, the first time in the state’s history that Texas had established daily bag limits for fish. Even so, the redfish and speckled trout catch didn’t seem to improve all that much. In the subsequent legislative session, the group kept asking for more, including a ban on gill nets. Two years later, the GCCA lobbied hard to ban the commercial harvesting of red drum and spotted sea trout by classifying both as game species, like white-tail deer.

Pitted against wealthy sportfishermen, scores of workaday commercial netters erupted in bitter protests. They used their boats to form aquatic picket lines in an attempt to close the ports in Houston and Corpus Christi. The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, surrounded by commercial fishermen shouting obscenities at them, blasted fire hoses to break through a picket line at the harbor entrance of Port Mansfield. “No way in hell we’ll quit fishing,” Bill Praker, a spokesman for a picket line along the Galveston Ship Channel, told Bob Brister, the outdoors writer and GCCA member, for a story in Field & Stream. “This is our livelihood. Some of our people can’t read or write.”

Grigar and others fielded death threats. Kemp found a pair of shotgun shells in his mailbox. “The netters wanted him to know they knew where he and his family lived,” speculated Pat Murray, who watched the redfish wars unfold as a young angler and later became president of the Coastal Conservation Association. One of the group’s officials from Corpus Christi endured repeated warnings that his home and restaurant would burn if he testified on behalf of the game fish bill, which had been introduced in the Legislature in 1981. “He testified, and someone set fire to his restaurant,” Brister wrote. Others reported having their boats sunk and cabins vandalized.

The netters insisted that cyclical weather patterns, including frigid cold fronts and droughts that raised the salinity levels in the bays, had caused the redfish decline. Their fishing practices were in no way at fault, they said. Some biologists familiar with the controversy agreed with the netters, arguing that TPWD biologists had based their recommendations to outlaw the commercial harvest on faulty or incomplete research. “There aren’t any data to support the ban,” Ronald Ilg, a former researcher at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, told Texas Monthly’s Dick Reavis. “The problem, I think, is that we have a lot of fishermen who don’t know where the redfish are.” Added Donald E. Wohlschlag, the director of the Marine Science Institute, “I don’t know of any basis for the law. It’s a matter of people wanting something done and having the votes to do it.”

If nothing else, Wohlschlag had correctly gauged the political climate. There were only a few hundred commercial fishermen in Texas at the time, a number dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers. “We’re going to run out of redfish,” warned state representative Joe Allen, a Baytown Democrat and ally of the recreational fishermen. “I think it’s damn selfish of an industry only generating $2 million a year when the sportfishing industry is bringing in $223 million a year.” The game fish bill sailed through the Legislature. In defiance of the new commercial ban, some fishermen persisted for a time—Reavis’s April 1983 cover story for Texas Monthly, titled “The New Rustlers,” chronicled a dying breed of coastal poacher—but many of the netters had already turned to more lucrative careers as recreational guides. Fisherman Ernie Butler put away his nets and bought a small bait stand and burger joint on the Intracoastal Waterway on the back side of Padre Island, which eventually grew into Snoopy’s Pier, a venerable open-air seafood restaurant celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.

Likewise, red drum have had nearly four decades to recover, a “redfish revival” widely touted as one of Texas’s greatest conservation victories. “Texas has some of the best fisheries there are because of good science and good management,” said Greg Stunz, who directs the Center for Sportfish Science & Conservation at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. When he started joining federal commissions and learning about the fisheries in other states, he added, “I was surprised how good of a job Texas is doing, because some states aren’t like that. You go over to Louisiana, and the spotted sea trout are in big trouble right now.”

But the commercial ban and tighter recreational limits were only two components of the redfish revival. A few years before the opening salvo in the Redfish Wars, a scientist had begun to take a different yet no less ambitious approach to save the fish.

Connie Arnold vowed to spawn them in an artificial setting. “They were really in trouble, so something had to be done,” he recalled. “I always had the idea that if you could raise them in large numbers, maybe you could make a difference.”

In the wild, red drum spawn near the mouths of coastal passes from mid-August until the weather cools in October or November. Although no one had been successful in rearing a red drum in a laboratory, Arnold thought that he could use the well-equipped National Marine Fisheries Service research facility, in Port Aransas, which opened in 1973, to manipulate conditions that induce spawning, primarily by adjusting the temperature of the water and the hours of sunlight in a given day, called the photoperiod.

“That’s what triggers it in the wild,” Arnold, now 83, told me. “I just had to duplicate it in the lab. When it got into their normal photoperiod and temperature, they started chasing each other. We maintained that temperature and photoperiod; lo and behold, they spawned.”

red drum

Red drum caught at Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir.

Larry D. Hodge/Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

fish hatchery

Sea Center Texas, a fish hatchery and visitor center in Lake Jackson.

Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Left:

Red drum caught at Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir.

Larry D. Hodge/Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Right:

Sea Center Texas, a fish hatchery and visitor center in Lake Jackson.

Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

It was like the redfish “could be turned on and off,” he said. A breakthrough came on August 14, 1975, when a female redfish in an eight-thousand-gallon saltwater tank really turned on, spawning up to five million eggs, a first for a red drum in captivity. One day later, the eggs began to hatch. Over the next several years, Arnold and his team successfully spawned redfish, speckled trout, flounder, croaker, and red snapper, the first natural spawning in captivity for each species. It turned out that redfish and trout—the most coveted of the coastal fish—weren’t so tricky to spawn and rear after all.

In 1979 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department adopted the techniques pioneered by Arnold to stock an incredible 15 million red drum up and down the coast. In the four decades since, the coastal hatchery has shown no signs of slowing. At Sea Center Texas, in Lake Jackson, one of three state-owned saltwater hatcheries, facilities director David Abrego can manipulate his rotating cast of brood fish to spawn twice per year when he bathes them in eleven hours of daylight and warms them to a temperature of 72 to 73 degrees. Abrego swears he can sniff the air and tell whether a redfish is ready to spawn. “You have to be one with the fish,” he said during a recent tour. “There’s an art to it.”

In fact, there’s an easier way to know when the fish are ready to spawn, he noted. True to their name, red drum males make a drumming or knocking sound when courting females. They do this by vibrating muscles against their swim bladder, a gas-filled sac that most fish use to control buoyancy, kind of like fingers rubbing a balloon. Red drum are noisiest after dusk, building toward a drumroll until females release millions of eggs, all of them smaller in size than the average head of a pin. The eggs float to the water’s surface and, in the lab, are gently moved to an incubation tank, where they mature into fry after a couple of days. Then they are moved again, to shallow outdoor ponds where they feast on zooplankton for about a month, until the two-inch-long fingerlings can be released in bays and estuaries to survive—or not—on their own.

Every year, TPWD hatcheries also rear millions of speckled trout. “We’ve got it down to a science,” Abrego said.

But now he has another challenge on his hands. There’s a new war roiling coastal fishing communities, and it involves another popular species in deep trouble in Texas waters: the southern flounder.

The flounder is both delicious and shaped kind of like a deflated football. With oddly positioned eyes that look up from the same side of its face, it typically burrows flat against the floor of the Gulf, watching for prey to ambush. But like red drum and speckled trout four decades ago, Stunz said, Texas’s flounder are struggling. According to TPWD’s coast-wide tests, which the department has conducted since 1982, numbers of juvenile flounder in Texas bays hit all-time lows a few years ago. “You’re dealing with a fishery that just can’t handle that kind of fishing pressure,” Stunz said. “Unlike oil and gas, fisheries renew themselves. If we don’t fish them too far down, they’ll always rebound in excess, and you can harvest that excess.”

Flounder don’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with our demand. Rising temperatures are one concern, he said. The flounder spawns in November and December during the famous “flounder run,” when water temperatures drop, and adults migrate to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. But if water temperatures range up or down by more than just a few degrees within the first few delicate weeks of life, the larvae die. For some reason, warmer water also causes more males than females to hatch. The Gulf of Mexico has been warming since the seventies due to climate change.

But the heaviest pressure is likely coming from the commercial harvest, rather than sport anglers. “Recreational fishing is about the experience,” Stunz said. “Yeah, you keep a few fish, but it’s very much resource conservation oriented. On the commercial side, it’s very much ‘How much can I catch and how fast can I catch them, and how quick can I go back out and get some more?’ Because if they’re not bringing any fish to the dock, they’re not making any money.”

I recently visited Sea Center Texas, where loud pumps cycle water through a complex system of tanks and pipes. Several “bull reds” were swimming in large vats near a smaller tub that teemed with thousands of eyelash-length flounder hatched up to two months earlier. Unlike more mature flounder, the youngest larvae in the incubation tub resembled normal fish, with eyes on either side of their head. Older babies were in various stages of a remarkable transformation: their right eye was drifting over to join the left. “It’s insane what this fish goes through,” said Jennifer Butler, a Sea Center Texas biologist. “I mean, to go through your first month of life and then all of a sudden, everything changes. Your eye shifts, and you suddenly have the urge to lie down on the floor.”

Perhaps owing in part to that complex metamorphosis, the Texas Parks  and Wildlife Department has had less luck fine-tuning its flounder hatchery. Flounder are also much less fecund than red drum, producing just 100,000 eggs per spawn, compared to millions of eggs in each batch from a red drum. “We’ve been working for ten years, and it’s an extremely difficult fish to rear,” Abrego said. Later this year, Sea Center Texas is set to open a new laboratory building dedicated entirely to flounder.

At their next meeting, possibly as soon as May 21 if not delayed by the coronavirus, Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners are also set to vote on major new restrictions for both commercial and recreational flounder fishing. To protect females during the fall flounder run, biologists at the state’s fisheries are recommending that all flounder fishing be closed from November 1 to December 15. The biologists are also advocating for an increase in the minimum size limit, from fourteen inches to fifteen. At fourteen inches, just half of female flounders are sexually mature; one inch more, and it can be assumed that 90 percent are mature and have had at least a year or two to spawn.

On a calm and clear evening during the annual flounder run in December, Greg Stunz, a couple of his associates from the Sportfish Science Center, and I piled into his boat and tooled across Corpus Christi Bay. Approaching a few muddy islands about half a mile off the mainland, with the lights of Corpus Christi dotting the horizon to our southwest, Stunz cut the outboard motor and we climbed into the shin-deep water to look for flounder to gig, or spear. We were getting an early start, Stunz explained, to beat the competition from professional guides. “There’s going to be a parade of charter captains tonight,” he said. “It’s like a circus out here.”

As the sun set over Corpus Christi, we stalked across the clear, shallow flats of the bay, with a double-pronged gig in one hand and an underwater spotlight in the other. A stingray flapped past the glow of my light. Stunz scanned his spotlight back and forth. “I found one!” he yelled, calling me over. The shadowy fish had bedded into the silt. Confident the flounder was well above the legal limit, Stunz gave the word, and I speared my dinner (blackened). Within the hour, our party of four had gigged our limit of two apiece. As we made our way back to Stunz’s house in Port Aransas, we passed several other boats using spotlights to look for flounder.

Assuming Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners approve the new restrictions, we were among the last Texans to gig for southern flounder during their late-fall spawning run. Were the Flounder Wars about to begin? The battle, Stunz said, was beyond heated. “It’s boiling.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Fish Fight.” Subscribe today.

Comments

  • Gregzzz

    So heres the deal… its the giggers who are getting all the flounder. Zero doubt about that. The rec guys dont do any damage at all. If they banned gigging ( which isnt sportsman like at all ) the flounder population would skyrocket. They know this and so does everyone who truly looks at this objectively. Gigging is the modern day gill net as far as flounder are concerened. Cutting the rec guys in Nov and Dec is stupid. The limit is only 2 then. They’re doing this because they dont want to piss off the giggers. However they know the end game and its to ban gigging. TPWD knows this and so does the CCA.