Trigger-Unhappy: How A Fish Goes From Unwanted To Endangered

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Mike Holmes

My first experience at offshore fishing came at the end of my freshman year in high school. Growing up in East Texas, a class trip with my Vocational Agriculture group on Capt. Tee Boy McCall’s old Sunrise II party boat out of Cameron. Louisiana was about as exciting to me then as a trip to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef would be today. Probably the most interesting part of that trip was the amazing variety of fish we caught. I got to see close up and for the first time large grouper, a hefty shark, LOTS of red snapper – and triggerfish. In those days of seemingly unlimited snapper populations, it would have been unheard of to put a triggerfish in the fish box. They were ugly, for one thing. Gray and odd-shaped, with teeth like a farm animal. Didn’t smell real good, either. It was obvious that these were not a highly prized sport or food fish, but they were certainly not shy about taking a hooked offering, and fought very aggressively for their size.

Fast forward to the years when I captained various charter boats in the Gulf, and I learned that triggerfish were actually good eating. The thick skin that makes it so difficult to cut them into bait sized chucks also discourages many from filleting them, but there is a sort of natural entry point near that trigger-like dorsal that a fillet knife can be slid into to begin the cut – or an electric fillet knife with a sharp blade can be used to make the job even easier. Some old time fishermen admitted to me they actually preferred eating triggers to snapper.

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Historically, anglers have spent more time trying NOT to catch triggerfish, which can be a nuisance if you are trying to get bait down to red snapper. Now, the gray triggerfish (here in a huge catch with Spanish mackerel) are considered “overfished.”

Even with being good eating and a hard fighter for it’s size class, Triggers were still ugly, and fish that are “too easy” to locate and catch aren’t considered very challenging for sport anglers. Triggerfish were so common, in fact, as to be a nuisance for snapper fishermen, and even sometimes shredded baits drifted just below the surface for king mackerel. Fishermen have spent far more time trying to NOT catch triggerfish than trying to catch them. When around a rig or over a reef in large numbers, which was very common, it could be impossible to get a bait down to snapper, and the small mouth and crushing teeth of a triggerfish made them hard to hook, if a person did decide to fish for them.

Several years ago, gray triggerfish were placed under regulation as part of the “reef fish aggregate” limit, with several other species, in federal waters. This meant there was actually a bag limit on a fish few people had any interest in catching. I discussed this with Hal Osborn, when he was Director of Coastal Fisheries for TPWD, and he felt it was because on the east coast, fishing opportunities were getting so bad that triggerfish were actually sought after, and maybe over pressured. We agreed this was another instance supporting regional management of Gulf fisheries. I suspect very few Texas fishermen knew much about the “reef fish aggregate” limit, and even fewer would need to be careful not to go over their 4 fish daily limit of triggerfish.

Then came the summer of 2012, and the complete closure of recreational fishing for triggerfish in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning on June 11, 2012, and running until January 1, 2013, in the waters more than 9 nautical miles off the Texas coast regulated by NOAA/NMFS, and in state waters for charter boats holding a Federal Reef Fish Permit. The reasoning for the closure was that NMFS estimated the recreational quota of 217,000 pounds, whole weight, of triggerfish would have been landed by that date. “This closure is necessary to protect the gray triggerfish resource. This stock is considered overfished and undergoing overfishing.” The commercial quota for this species was only 60,900 pounds, again whole weight, and though it had not been deemed to have been reached, commercial harvest of triggerfish would be halted when that event did occur.

Very curious, I checked with some of the few active charter captains in my area to get their views on the subject. I was told that there really were very few triggerfish around, and the thinking was they had been over pressured when anglers turned to them when red snapper fishing was closed.

Then we got Dr. Bob Shipp’s take on the matter. Dr. Shipp is a long time member of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, a respected expert on Gulf of Mexico fisheries, and a university level educator in this field in Alabama – in my opinion as knowledgeable as anyone on such subjects. Dr. Shipp feels the drop in triggerfish populations is directly linked to booming red snapper stocks. Like many of us, he feels that artificially protecting red snapper has caused them to over populate reefs and rigs, not only competing with other species for the food source, but also eating their competition! In the case of triggerfish, he suggests the snapper are feeding on triggerfish egg masses, and all but depleting the species in some areas.

By restricting the catch of red snapper, they seem to have actually exceeded the historical carrying capacity for that species. This is causing a “disturbance in the force”, as Star Wars fans might say, and the abnormally large population of snapper are affecting other fish species sharing the same range and food sources. Basically, the “success” of the snapper re-building program is a “failure” for the overall health of Gulf fisheries. If the theory about red snapper being responsible for the dramatic decline in triggerfish numbers is true, shutting down recreational fishing for triggers will probably not do much to solve the problem – and some might be worried what species will follow the triggerfish in it’s decline next?

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