The shallow, highly productive body of water straddling the Aransas Bay and Corpus Christi Bay systems in the Coastal Bend boasts the state’s northernmost extensive stands of sea grasses, highly evolved marine flowering plants that are one source of the area’s bounty of red drum and spotted seatrout.
Aransas Bay, appropriately enough, often leads the state in the catch rate of red drum in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gill net sampling.
Anglers’ success here has led to a surge in the area’s popularity, and the fragile seagrass meadows — they cover about a third of the 32,000-acre portion of the bay that has been designated a state scientific area — are showing the effects.
“This area is number one for guided fishing trips, and receives the second highest pressure along the Texas coast for private boat anglers,” said TPWD Coastal Fisheries Biologist Faye Berens. “Visitors outnumber locals two to one.”
In a recent study, more than half of randomly selected areas in the bay showed evidence of propeller scarring. The trenches destroy the grass, fragment habitat, channel tidal movement and sometimes take years to recover.
“A seagrass meadow supplies everything that many marine organisms need. It provides food for grazing animals at the base of the food chain, surfaces to cling on for small crawling critters, shelter and hiding places for small invertebrates and fish, and ambush points for the larger predators and game fish,” said Dennis Pridgen, another Coastal Fisheries biologist. “For them it’s the nursery, the roof over their heads and the grocery store all rolled into one.”
When the TPW Commission voted on the new rule in November 2005, several options were on the table. One was to replace voluntary “no-propeller” zones in the most sensitive parts of the bay with mandatory no-prop zones.
Instead, commissioners chose the least restrictive option, one that focused on changing boater behavior and creating a new appreciation for the value of seagrass habitat. No portion of the RBSSA has been closed to any type of boat or motor.
“What we’re trying to do is really get boaters to think about what they’re doing out in the water,” Berens said. “The responsibility is on the boater to know the area he’s fishing in, and also protect and preserve some of the habitat that supports the fish that he’s fishing for.”
To that end, TPWD has launched a public education and outreach program targeting boaters in the local area as well as around the state. At boat ramps in the nearby communities of Rockport, Aransas Pass, Ingleside and Port Aransas, signs will make anglers aware of the new regulation and also show the boundaries of the state scientific area.
Boundary signs will mark the 50-square-mile area in which the regulation applies, and TPWD employees will install signs marking preferred access lanes (PALs) to help guide boaters safely through sensitive portions of the bay. Biologists developed the PALs based on the input of local boaters and commonly prevailing winds and tides in the area.
TPWD’s Aransas Bay Ecosystem Leader Karen Meador stressed that the lanes are experimental.
“We’re going to install these where we can, and where we think they will do the most good,” she said. “If we find that they are not useful, or if the lanes need to be marked in different areas, we can move them.”
Proponents of the new regulation are urging boaters who use the RBSSA to follow these rules of thumb:
- Even though boater access is allowed throughout the RBSSA, boaters can avoid damaging seagrass by simply avoiding shallow areas.
- If the vessel’s wake is muddy, the propeller may be cutting into the bay bottom and causing damage. It is the boater’s responsibility to know the depth of the water they are running in and to avoid areas too shallow for their vessel.
- When these shallow waters are encountered, it is suggested that boat operators LIFT their motors, DRIFT, POLE or TROLL.
In fact, “lift, drift, pole or troll” has become something of a mantra in the Coastal Bend — one that local biologists hope more boaters will adopt.
“We have an amazing natural resource here,” said Larry McKinney, Ph.D., director of TPWD’s coastal fisheries division. “We want the people of Texas to be able to continue to enjoy it and to take advantage of the wonderful fishing opportunities Redfish Bay offers.”
McKinney said that Census data suggest population — and fishing pressure — along the coast is likely to double in the next 20 years.
“We have to take steps now to ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same angling opportunities we take for granted today,” he said.
SIDEBAR: Redfish Bay State Scientific Area is a roughly triangular portion of Aransas and Corpus Christi Bays bounded by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the west, the Aransas Bay shoreline of Talley, Traylor and Harbor Islands to the north, and the Lydia Ann Channel and Corpus Christi Ship Channel to the east.
The new law (31 TAC §57.921) states that:
“Within the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area, no person shall cause or allow any rooted seagrass plant to be uprooted or dug out from the bay bottom by a submerged propeller, except as may be permitted by a coastal lease issued by the Texas General Land Office or otherwise permitted under state law.
“It is not a violation to: anchor a vessel within the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area; or use electric trolling motors within the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area.”
The law further states that:
“No person may move, remove, deface, alter, or destroy any sign, depth marker or other informational signage placed by the department to delineate boundaries of the Redfish Bay State Scientific Area or to designate specific zones within the area.”
Violators of the law can be charged with a Class “C” Misdemeanor, which can result in a fine of up to $500.
– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide