Mote’s Aquaculture and Fisheries Ecology & Enhancement Programs worked together to successfully raise 20,000 red drum fish –and plan to release all the fish in Sarasota and Charlotte counties this month with the goal of replenishing red drum populations that have been negatively affected by events such as cold stuns and Florida red tide.  This effort represents the largest number of red drum produced in the program’s 25-year history for the purpose of fisheries conservation efforts.

On June 22 Mote Marine Laboratory scientists released approximately 1,800 of the 20,000 red drum into Phillippi Creek on Sarasota Bay as part of an ongoing partnership with Salt Strong designed to find the most effective methods to replenish and enhance red drum populations. The rest of the fish will be released later this month.

With support from Salt Strong*, Mote was able to produce and release its largest number of red drum yet with fish that tip the scales at 6-10” in length to boost survival of the stocked fish, enable monitoring their post-release behavior, and help promote sustainable fisheries.

The species is one of Florida’s most popular sport fish and plays an important role in drawing recreational anglers to the state. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida is the top-ranked state in economic output from recreational fishing, which draws $13.8 billion to the economy annually. Saltwater fishing alone generates 67 percent — $9.2 billion — of that income.

Prior to the release in Southwest Florida, the red drum were spawned and reared at Mote’s Aquaculture Research Park (MAP) – a 200-acre facility where a team of scientists focus on conservation and cultivation of marine finfish, bivalves, crustaceans, and aquatic plants in land-based recirculating systems.

Aquaculture involves breeding, raising, and harvesting aquatic organisms in water. These aquatic organisms–including finfish, bivalve shellfish, shrimp, and other invertebrates, and aquatic plants are farmed for the ornamental aquarium trade, food, conservation, and other uses. “Responsible aquaculture practices can sustainably provide food security and prepare us to meet future protein demands without increasing the pressure on wild-capture fishery resources,” said Manager of Mote’s Marine & Freshwater Aquaculture Program, Dr. Nicole Rhody. “There are nearly 8 billion people in the world and humans across the globe rely on the ocean as a main source of food. The demand for seafood is only increasing. Some wild fish populations are feeling the pressure from that demand increase with about 60% of the world’s fish stocks listed as fully fished, meaning they are right at the limit of sustainability. Here at Mote, we are leading the development of innovative technologies to farm seafood, using aquaculture as one tool to help take pressure off wild-capture fishery resources.”

By utilizing a method called stock enhancement, researchers are able to farm fish species, such as red drum, in a hatchery and release them in areas where their population has declined.

Prior to release, some of these red drum were fitted with PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags, which allow Mote scientists to monitor these fish to learn from their efforts. By placing an antenna along the shore, each PIT tag is detected when a fish swims by, allowing Mote scientists to monitor each fish’s movement and survival, and collect data critical to the effectiveness of Mote’s stock enhancement methods.

Mote’s Fisheries Ecology & Enhancement Program Manager, Dr. Ryan Schloesser, explains the importance of PIT-tagging the fish, and what can be learned from the data that is collected from these tags, “We may only ever see a very small percent of released fish again if relying on physical recaptures alone. We know we regularly get data from 80% of the PIT tagged snook we release, and we can’t wait to see how much PIT tags can show us about red drum stock enhancement” said Schloesser.

Schloesser is excited to have reignited work with stocking red drum within the program. With experience enhancing common snook populations, Schloesser and his team have collaborated with aquaculture efforts to rear red drum at a larger scale.

“We develop innovative tools and methods to help natural resource managers and others replenish and monitor fisheries,” said Schloesser. “Our research offers insights not only for enhancing this vital fishery, but for multiple other fisheries along with populations targeted for conservation.”

Rhody and her team oversaw the process of rearing and caring for these red drum at MAP.

“Aquaculture is currently the fastest-growing food production sector globally and a sustainable option for attaining food security,”  said Dr. Nicole Rhody. “Currently in the U.S., 91 percent of the seafood we consume is imported making it one of biggest natural resources contributing to the trade deficit. If done responsibly, aquaculture can significantly contribute to the economy of coastal communities creating jobs, spurring innovation in technology and helping restore depleted species in marine habitats”.

Red drum, along with snook, are the main test species for restocking efforts statewide. Mote has promoted responsible fisheries enhancement of snook in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for more than 25 years.

Mote’s partnership with Salt Strong makes a difference in helping conservation aquaculture efforts. Choosing sustainably caught or farmed fish helps ensure that future generations can both enjoy and rely on an abundant healthy ocean.

“Ever since we participated in a snook release with Mote a few years ago, we knew that we had to recreate a release with red drum,” said Joe Simonds, Salt Strong Co-Founder. “The more we talked with Mote about the lack of reliable data on past red drum releases, our entire team and members became incredibly excited that we’d be one of the first ever to PIT tag this many red drum. So not only will this large release give Southwest Florida a much-needed increase in red drum, but the data collected will positively impact all future red drum releases.”

*Salt Strong is the largest saltwater fishing club in America with over 43,000 “Insider” members across the country. It began as a blog and YouTube channel with the goal of helping inshore saltwater anglers catch more fish in less time. Over the years, it has evolved into the largest and fastest-growing saltwater fishing club with exclusive fishing tackle.