Recruitment of Juvenile Gag Grouper in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico

By Ted Switzer

Gags (Mycteroperca microlepis) support extensive commercial and recreational fisheries in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. A 2016 stock assessment did not support earlier assessments that indicated that gags are currently overfished and continue to undergo overfishing (South East Data Assessment and Review 33 update). Considering the status of Gag in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, it is especially important to improve understanding of its juvenile recruitment processes.

Study area of polyhaline seagrass habitats sampled in estuarine systems in the panhandle (St. Andrew Bay, Apalachicola Bay), Big Bend region (St. Marks, Econfina, and Steinhatchee), and peninsula (Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor) of Florida, USA (Schrandt et al. 2018).

Past research has shown that juvenile Gags generally occupy structured polyhaline (18-30 practical salinity units) habitats such as seagrass beds and oyster reefs for several months before emigrating to nearshore reefs (Figure 1). The reliance of Gags on estuarine nurseries, combined with a brief period of estuarine occupancy, greatly facilitates the accurate characterization of the strength of juvenile recruitment.

A comprehensive examination of long-term (10+ years) FWC/FWRI fisheries-independent data was conducted to characterize habitat selection and recruitment of juvenile Gags. Results from Apalachicola Bay, Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor habitat suitability analyses indicated that juvenile Gags selected polyhaline habitats with sloping bottoms and extensive seagrass coverage. These analyses indicated that the near shore, deeper water polyhaline seagrass habitats had been under sampled (Switzer et al. 2012).

A multi-gear survey (183-m haul seine and 6.1-m trawl) was designed to supplement long-term, fisheries-independent survey data on estuarine-dependent reef-associated fishes. The supplemental survey design specifically considered juvenile Gag recruitment ecology and thus targeted the deep, polyhaline (>18 psu) seagrass habitats that are used by age-0 Gags. Potential sampling sites were limited to generally polyhaline waters that contained at least 50% bottom coverage of seagrass, had a measurable slope and were between 1.0 and 7.6 m deep.

Gag begin their life offshore in a pelagic environment where they spend their first 30-60 days. Eventually they settle out onto shallow water seagrass beds, where they spend the summer months feeding and growing. In the fall they migrate to nearshore hard-bottom habitat. As they mature, they eventually migrate to deeper water reefs and as mature adults they form spawning aggregations and spawn during the winter months. Gag are hermaphrodites. They are born as females and as they grow eventually transition to be male.

This supplemental sampling was initiated in 2008 and polyhaline seagrass beds were sampled by bottom trawls (6.1-m otter trawl) and haul seines (183-m haul seines) in seven estuaries along Florida’s Gulf coast (Figure 2). Apalachicola Bay, Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay have been routinely sampled since the late 1990s; St. Andrew Bay and three estuaries in the Big Bend region between Cedar Key and Cape San Blas (St. Marks, Ecofina, and Steinhatchee), where Gag recruitment had been documented, were added for this study and have become part of the continuing survey.

Analyses of the data collected in the long-term and supplemental surveys (2008-2012) demonstrated the effectiveness of this sampling approach. The size ranges of Gags collected in both studies were similar, but age-0 individuals were captured more frequently and the catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) was significantly higher in the supplemental surveys (Switzer et al 2015). These analyses will not only enhance our understanding of recruitment processes for juvenile Gags in the eastern Gulf but will also provide valuable insight into observed patterns of habitat use and the relative importance of various habitat types. Nevertheless, additional information on habitat availability, combined with a better understanding of the estuarine systems’ relative contributions to nearshore Gag populations, will be required to maximize the utility of these data in predicting fisheries productivity.

Strong Gag year-classes have been documented as persisting as the fish grow and enter the fishery. Accordingly, accurate estimation and prediction of juvenile recruitment is critical to the effective assessment and management of at-risk fisheries. Variability of estuarine nekton assemblages is valuable as an indicator of environmental quality.  Therefore, the patterns discerned from the supplemental sampling have important implications for fisheries managers.