Atlantic croaker, Micropogonias undulatus
Although Atlantic croaker occur throughout much of Florida, they are seldom found
south of Tampa Bay on the gulf coast or south of the Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic coast
Lankford et al. (1999) found that the genetic population structure of Atlantic croaker in U.S
coastal waters consisted of separate, weakly differentiated stocks in the Atlantic and Gulf of
Mexico. Atlantic croaker are medium-sized members of the drum family. Most individuals are
less than 14 inches long when caught. Young Atlantic croaker use estuaries as nursery and
feeding grounds (Arnoldi et al. 1974), but by the time they are 3–4 inches long, they begin t
migrate into nearshore waters (Parker 1971). Adults are often found over mud bottoms in areas
of low to moderate salinity. The maximum reported age is 8 years (Barger 1985; Barbieri et al.
1994). Atlantic croaker reach 7–10 inches at age 1 and 12–17 inches at age 5 (Table 1; Barger
1985; Ross 1988; Barbieri et al.1994). They mature at the end of their first or second year, whe
they are 6 to 10 inches in total length (White and Chittenden 1977). Spawning occurs over the
nearshore continental shelf during the late fall and winter.
Total statewide landings of croaker in 2005 were 177,385 pounds; the recreational fishery
made 87% of the statewide landings. Landings were greater on the Atlantic coast, where about
89% of the statewide landings were made in 2005. In 2005, reported commercial landings were
highest in Volusia County on the Atlantic coast, and in Escambia and Gulf Counties on the gulf
coast (Fig. 1). Estimated recreational landings were highest along the Atlantic coast, especially
from Indian River County north to Nassau County (Fig. 2). Total annual landings of Atlantic
croaker declined sharply during the late 1980s, increased slightly during 1991–1995, and
declined again during 1996–1997. Between 1998 and 2001, total annual landings of Atlantic
croaker have slowly increased but remained at low levels. Total annual landing levels between
2002 and 2005 were low and similar to those estimated between 1996 and 1998. The 2005 total
landings of Atlantic croaker were about 44% lower than the average landings in the previous five
years (2000–2004) but were 79% lower than the 1982–2005 historical average landings (Fig.3).
On the Atlantic coast, the standardized commercial catch rate increased during 1992–
2000, then showed a steady decline since 2001(Fig. 4). On the gulf coast, commercial catch rates
have been variable and without a long-term trend since 1992, in spite of relatively high levels in
2004 and 2005 (Fig. 5). Since 1991, recreational total-catch rates have fluctuated without trend
on both the Atlantic and gulf coasts (Figs. 6, 7).
Indices of abundance for young-of-the-year (YOY) Atlantic croaker have varied without
trend on the Atlantic coast in spite of strong year classes observed in 1996, 2001 and 2005 (Fig.
8). On the gulf coast, they have remained low and stable during 1996-2002, but evidenced some
recent strong year classes especially in 2004 and 2005 (Fig. 9). Abundances of post-YOY
Atlantic croaker have varied without trend on the Atlantic coast and were highest in 1999 on the
gulf coast (Figs. 10, 11).
Occurrences of gross external abnormalities in Atlantic croaker were highest in 2000 on
the Atlantic coast and 2001 on the gulf coast (Figs. 12, 13). Fin rot, red/bloody areas and skeletal
abnormality were equally encountered on the Atlantic coast while fin rot and ulcers/lesions were
the most common detectable abnormalities on the gulf coast (Figs. 14, 15).
There have been no specific stock assessments developed for Atlantic croaker in Florida.
Simple equilibrium yield-per-recruit analyses for Atlantic croaker in Chesapeake Bay showed
that they had a high biological capacity to resist growth overfishing (Kline 1993, Barbieri et al.
1997). While it was estimated that current fishing rates had reduced stock biomass by two-thirds
in Chesapeake Bay, nothing is known about how this had affected the reproductive capacity of
the stock. A recent assessment of the Atlantic coast stock indicated that Atlantic croaker
abundance was highly recruitment driven (Hightower et al. 2000). Recruitment and stock
biomass were low during the late 1980s–early 1990s. However, with the production of large
year classes in 1994 and 1995, stock biomass increased rapidly between 1994 and 1996. The
ASMFC (2005) used an Age Structured Production Model in an assessment of the Atlantic
croaker in the mid Atlantic region (North Carolina and north). There was not enough data to
assess the South Atlantic region (Florida through South Carolina). Fishing mortality rates (F),
based on the average population weighted F for ages 1-10+, exhibited a cyclical trend over the
time series. From 1977 to 1979, F rose rapidly reaching a maximum of 0.5 in 1979. Beginning in
1980, F rapidly declined reaching its lowest levels in 1992. Since 1993, F has gradually
increased and between 1997 and 2002 has remained relatively stable at around 0.11 per year.
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Florida’s Inshore and Nearshore Species
by Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute