And what’s endangering the future of this valuable sportfish in Florida waters.
By Doug Kilpatrick
Imagine a fish making blistering runs, jumps and being caught both inshore and offshore. It takes lures, bait and flies. It can be as aggressive as a pit bull, or picky as a permit.
That’s the great barracuda.
An apex predator of the warmwater grassflats and coral reefs, the great barracuda is now under fire. A fish that used to run in packs, suspend in schools over most any structure, and lay up on the flats is now increasingly being caught and sold for less than $1 per pound. As regulations on other species such as grouper and snapper tighten, commercial interests tend to shift their efforts to the “next available fish.” We saw this with amberjack, and now we see it with the barracuda. Veteran anglers and charter captains—especially in the Florida Keys—agree that there has already been a significant decline in the barracuda population.
That public market demand even exists for this sometimes carrier of neurotoxic ciguatera is enough to give pause. For a period, beginning in the late 1970s, sale of barracuda was prohibited in Florida. And yet, commercial landings data reveal great barracuda is indeed being taken—and sold—in volumes approach- ing those of mutton snapper, cobia and other fish.
Is the barracuda not wor- thy of gamefish status, or at least some form of established recreational and com- mercial limits? Currently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is silent on that score—but that may be changing.
According to Amanda Nalley, Public Information Specialist with the FWC Marine Division in Tallahassee: “We are aware of the stakeholder concern for barracuda and the issue is on our 2014-15 work plan (list of items we are considering for possible rulemaking in the coming year) but we don’t know at this time when or if we will recommend regulatory changes.” What that means is, as of now, the barracuda is an “unregulated species,” which means that unlimited numbers may be caught or speared and sold by anyone holding a Saltwater Products License. This license can be purchased by anyone at their local courthouse.
Annually, thou- sands of pounds of barracuda are currently being harvested during the spring and summer, as they congregate to spawn. From 2002 to 2012, NOAA reports indicate that there was over 1,000,000 pounds harvested. Significant increases were noted from 2008 to 2010, with a substantial decline in the catch from 2010-2012. These increases and sub- sequent decline were experienced by both recreational and commercial harvests. Common sense will tell anyone that the economic value of a fish, when left alone to successfully spawn and provide years of recreation, far exceeds $1 per pound. Overall, in 2011, saltwater recreational fishing in Florida generated a to- tal of $8.2 billion in sales and 76,000 jobs (www.nmfs.noaa.gov).
It is time to give the barracuda the gamefish status that it deserves. Florida anglers are encouraged to contact the FWC and voice concerns at www.myfwc.com/contact/fwc-staff/senior-staff/ contact-commissioners.
Preliminary Data on Great Barracuda
From FWC Division of Marine Fisheries
- The great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda, is found in the western Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, but is particularly abundant off South Florida. Studies have shown adult barracuda are especially abundant in the Florida Keys. Barracuda are also found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea as well as the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of pounds are being taken during the spring and summer, as barracuda congregate to spawn. These fish are sold for less than $1 per pound.
- Barracudas tend to be solitary but are also found in aggregations over promi- nent reef structures, particularly near arti- ficial structures and shallow bank reefs.
uIn the Florida Keys, adult great barracuda occupy nearly all habitats from residential canals and shallow seagrass flats near shore, to Florida Bay, and the off- shore open water of the Florida Straits and Gulf of Mexico.
-They commonly occur in nearshore coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves. Juveniles rely on shallow seagrass and man- grove habitat for shelter during the first
– During spawning, which is presumed to occur offshore throughout the spring and summer, eggs are released and fertilized in open waters and dispersed by the currents. Newly hatched larvae bear little resemblance to adults.
- Great barracudas at all life stages feed on an array of prey including fish such as jacks, grunts, groupers, snappers, small tunas, mullets, killifishes, herrings and anchovies and occasionally on invertebrates, especially cephalopods.
- To date, only a small number of studies have documented barracuda movement and behavior. A tagging study in The Bahamas suggested that barracuda live along nearshore reefs, tidal
flats and deeper pelagic areas for long periods of time; however, there also seems to be a segment of the population that is transient and mobile. Seasonal migrations are presumed to be associated with spawning activity or variation in water temperatures.
– There are few preda- tors that are large enough and fast enough to feed on adult great barracuda. Sharks, tuna and goliath grouper have been known to feed on adult barracuda. Juveniles likely fall prey to a variety of inshore predators.
- No stock assessments have been conducted for great barracuda and we don’t have a reliable estimate of the numbers of individuals in the populations. FWC does not currently have any research projects underway aimed specifically at assessing the status of barracuda. However, in response to stakeholder reports, the FWC will be exploring existing data sets that are focused on other species in the Florida Keys region, including reef fish visual surveys and landings data sets, that might contain information about barracuda in order to try and assess the magnitude of any change in abundance that may be occurring. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman March 2014