TEXAS FRESHWATER by Matt Williams – March 2019

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February 24, 2019

Alligator Gar Regs

JUST IN CASE you haven’t heard, more restrictive regulations for the Trinity River alligator gar fishery and possibly others may soon come down the pike if the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission has its way.

Alligator gar are already protected by a statewide restriction put in place in 2009, which limits anglers and bow fishers to one fish per day on all Texas waters except Lake Falcon. The current limit on this Texas/Mexico border lake is five per day.

Once considered rough fish with no real value, alligator gar can grow beyond 300 pounds and live longer than 50 years. They have become increasingly popular with rod and reel anglers and bow fishers from all over the world in recent times.

The one-fish-daily limit was put in place to protect the long-lived predators with fierce looking choppers from the possibility of over-fishing. Scientists feared this might happen under a no-limit regulation that afforded them no protection at all.

The alligator gar’s sporadic reproductive cycles also spur some concern. Biologists say alligator gar may not reach sexual maturity for 10 years, and they require specific spawning conditions that don’t exist every year.

Texas has one of the last strongholds of alligator gar in the nation, and the Trinity River ranks among the best spots around to connect with a big one. Accordingly, TPWD fisheries biologists have spent a considerable amount of time and resources learning about the river’s alligator gar population.

The department’s most current data goes back to 2010. It shows the annual take is somewhere between two to four percent, and that the population is a healthy one.

Biologists say the population could sustain itself and continue offering opportunities to catch large fish at this rate under the current regulation. However, should annual exploitation exceed five percent for an extended period, it could lead to depletion that could take years to reverse, according to Dave Terre, TPWD Chief of Inland Fisheries Management and Research.

Apparently, commissioners don’t put much stock in the department’s existing research data. Nor does it appear they are comfortable with the idea that the current limit provides sufficient protection. Otherwise, discussions about more restrictive regulations probably wouldn’t be on the table.

But they are.

Here’s a little background: Last March, commissioners ordered inland fisheries staff to fashion a regulation aimed at stopping the take of big alligator gar on the Trinity. In November, biologists presented a preview of possible changes with plans to make a formal proposal at the most recent Commission meeting held January 24, in Austin.

It’s entirely possible we could be looking at something entirely different than what was being talked about back in November. However, if the formal proposal is similar to the one previewed to the commission last fall, the stretch of Trinity River from the I-30 bridge in Dallas to the I-10 bridge in Chambers County could soon be off limits to bow fishers looking to take a trophy class fish.

“The commission expressed their concern to us about alligator gar on the Trinity River and directed us to propose regulations to eliminate taking large alligator gar,” said Terre. “We looked at a variety of options, but the potential changes we landed on aim to protect the sustainability of Texas’s world-class population of alligator gar while still allowing the harvest of some smaller gar.”

The preview proposal was tailored after several months of deliberation and review of public feedback from an online alligator gar survey conducted last summer. It initially called for a one-fish, five-foot maximum length limit on alligator gar. Biologists reduced the length limit to four feet after commissioners said they didn’t think five feet was restrictive enough.

A four-foot limit would mean anglers could not retain or kill an alligator gar longer than four feet. On average, a four-foot alligator gar will weigh about 26 pounds, Terre said. The biologist added that a high percentage of survey respondents supported the idea of a maximum length limit. However, no specific size limit was advertised in the survey.

Rod and reel fishermen could work around a four-foot maximum length limit by catching and releasing large fish. Bow fishermen, meanwhile, could not.

In fact, a bowfisher could easily find himself on the other side the law should he misjudge the length of a fish by an inch or two.

In addition to a four-foot maximum limit, TPWD staff suggested the implementation of online mandatory reporting of every alligator gar taken statewide, excluding Lake Falcon. Terre said mandatory reporting potentially could be a useful tool to help biologists gather data to further refine management strategies of alligator gar populations.

Eliminating the take of large fish might sound like a fitting approach to provide some relief to an alligator gar population that’s hurting or on the brink of a downward spiral. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case on the Trinity River.

If it were, it seems likely that state fisheries biologists would have sounded some sort of alarm long before now—and that alarm would have been based on solid data.

That’s typically how daily bag limits for fish and wildlife come about, as they should be.

I’m all about protecting our resources and doing what is best to keep them healthy. But I’m also a proponent of letting biologists do their jobs and making fisheries management decisions based on sound science—not gut feelings.

Clearly, sound science has not been the motivating factor in the way this issue has been handled. Judging from facts made available at deadline, inland fisheries staff were pushed into a corner by their bosses and ordered to fashion a regulation for which they had no solid research data to support.

From the outside looking in, that seems like very spooky precedent to set.

Editors Note:  TF&G learned after deadline for this issue that TPWD inland fisheries managers expanded their list of proposed regulation changes on alligator gar to include a statewide ban on bowfishing for the fish at night. Online public comments should be directed to Ken Kurzawski, [email protected] or Dave Terre, [email protected].

 

DIGITAL BONUS

 

Big Fish with Big Fight

 

Alligator gar, virtually unchanged from prehistoric times, is attracting an enthusiastic 21st Century following. It’s the largest freshwater fish in Texas and gives anglers a good fight.

—TPWD

 

Email Matt Williams at [email protected]

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