Species Description: Cynoscion nebulosus, the spotted seatrout, is an elongate, fusiform member of the drum family that reaches a maximum length of 100 cm (3.3 feet). Body color is silvery, with the dorsal surface a darker gray tinged with blue. Many small black spots are scattered over the dorsal surface of the body above the lateral line and extend onto the dorsal and caudal fins. The spinous dorsal fin is dusky in color, while all other fins are pale to yellowish in color. The dorsal fin has 12 spines and 25-28 soft rays, with the spinous portion of the fin separated from the soft dorsal fin by a deep notch. The anal fin has 2 spines and 10-11 rays. The caudal fin is truncate or emarginate. The head is slightly concave in profile, with the large mouth set obliquely and the lower jaw projecting beyond the upper. The inside of the mouth is orange. The upper jaw has a large pair of canine teeth at set at the front, while the lower jaw has an enlarged inner row of close-set teeth. The snout has 2 marginal pores. There are no chin barbells. Scales large and ctenoid, covering most of the body surface except the soft dorsal and anal fins, which lack scales. The lateral line extends into the caudal fin and has 66 or more lateral line scales. There are 7-9 gill rakers on lower limb of the gill arch, with rakers relatively short and thick in comparison with other Cynoscion species (Hoese and Moore 1977; Johnson and Seaman 1986).
Potentially Misidentified Species: Cynoscion nebulosus may be confused with others of its genus, particularly the weakfish, C. regalis. However, its distinctive pattern of black spots scattered along the upper body and extending into the caudal and dorsal fins, easily distinguish it from C. regalis and other seatrout.
Regional Occurrence: Spotted seatrout range along the U.S. coast from Massachusetts south through Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico to Texas and Mexico. The center of abundance is the northern Gulf of Mexico and Florida (Pearson 1929).
IRL Distribution: Cynoscion nebulosus occurs throughout the IRL, but tends to be more abundant in its northern reaches, in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral.
Using molecular techniques, FWRI scientists have developed nuclear DNA evidence for 3 distinct groups of spotted seatrout in Florida waters (Seyoum and Bert, unpubl, FWRI). One group occurs from the Florida-Georgia border south to Biscayne Bay. The second group occurs from Biscayne Bay south through Florida Bay and northward to Steinhatchee on the Gulf coast. The third group occurs from Apalachicola westward into the Gulf of Mexico.
Age, Size, Lifespan: The spotted seatrout grows to a maximum size of approximately 100 cm (3.3 feet) total length (TL) and may weigh as much as 7.9 kg (17.4 pounds). The lifespan is approximately 18 years (Hoese and Moore 1977; Johnson and Seaman 1986).
Throughout Florida, young males outnumber young females, but females tend to live longer than males (Klima 1959; Moffett 1961; Rutherford et al. 1982). Based on growth ring analysis of scales, females also tend to grow somewhat faster than males (Moffett 1961), with growth averaging 0.7 - 13 cm (0.3 - 5.1 inches) per year, depending on age. Rutherford et al. (1982) reported growth is fastest during the first year, with a growth rate of approximately 21.2 cm (8.3 inches). This rate slows to approximately 4-5 cm (1.6 - 2 inches) per year for fish Ages II - IV. In the oldest fishes studied, growth slowed to approximately 2.2 cm (0.8 inches) per year.
Growth rates in Cynoscion nebulosus are temperature dependent, generally slowing or stopping completely in the winter months due to slowing metabolism and reduced feeding (Guest and Gunter 1958; Tabb 1961). Growth rates are highest in July and August (Pearson 1929; Moffett 1961).
Murphy and Taylor (1994) estimated length-weight relationships among spotted seatrout in different regions of Florida. They reported that in all areas, males are heavier than females of the same length. Further, there was some difference between estuaries in terms of weight at any given length, with fishes from the Indian River Lagoon and Apalachicola Bay tending to be heavier than seatrout collected from Charlotte Harbor.
Reproduction: Spotted seatrout mature at 1-4 years of age (Lorio and Perret 1980). Tabb (1961) reported that in the IRL, females mature at 3-4 years of age, while males mature at 2-3 years of age. Females tend to be larger at maturity than are males (Moody 1950; Moffett 1961). Length at maturity varies by region; however, most spotted seatrout spawn at 24-25 cm (9.4 - 9.8 inches) standard length (Moody 1950).
Cynoscion nebulosus spawn in nearshore and estuarine waters (Mercer 1984; Johnson and Seaman 1986). They are multiple spawners, as evidenced by the presence of vitellogenic and fully yolked eggs in ovaries throughout the spawning season (Brown-Peterson et al. 1988). The average time between successive spawns was reported by Brown-Peterson et al. (1988) as 3.6 days, though data from an experimental aquaculture population yielded a period between spawns of 21 days (Tucker and Faulkner 1987). This indicates that a female may spawn 9 - 60 times in a spawning season, and release 3 - 20 million eggs annually (Murphy et al. 1999).
Spawning occurs at somewhat different times depending on location. In Florida, spotted seatrout in the Ft. Myers area spawn from late March through September, with a peak in June (Moody 1950, Moffett 1961). In the Indian River Lagoon, spawning occurs from mid-April through July, peaking from April - June (Tabb 1961), though some data indicates year-round spawning within the IRL (Murphy and Taylor, FMRI, unpubl in Murphy et al. 1999). In the Everglades, evidence indicates year-round spawning that peaks both in spring and from late summer to early fall. (Jannke 1971; Rutherford et al. 1982). Time of spawning is controlled by temperature and salinity, with spotted seatrout in most areas spawning in waters where temperatures are 25 - 28ºC, and salinity is 30 - 35 ppt (Johnson and Seaman 1986).
Fecundity increases with size in Cynoscion nebulosus. In Florida, Moody (1957) reported a 39.7 cm (15.6 inches) female collected at Cedar Key contained 464,000 eggs. Tabb (1961) reported 15,000 - 1.1 million eggs per female from a collection of females, aged at 4 - 8 years, and ranging in size from 32.5 - 62.5 cm (12.8 - 24.6 inches) standard length (SL). In a Louisiana study, Sundararaj and Suttkus (1962) reported that Age III females contribute approximately 41% of all eggs spawned, and thus have the greatest reproductive potential of all age classes. Age IV females contributed 27% of the eggs spawned, while Age II females contributed 24%. In an Everglades study, Rutherford et al. (1982) found that most male spawners were Ages II, III, and IV.
Embryology: Eggs are spherical, generally with a single oil droplet. Sometimes, however, more than one droplet is observed (Tabb 1966). Eggs can be both demersal and pelagic, depending on salinity conditions (Perret et al. 1980). When salinity is high, eggs are buoyant. When salinity drops below 25 parts per thousand (ppt), eggs tend to sink. Optimum survival salinity for eggs and larvae is approximately 28 ppt (Taniguchi 1980).
Larvae hatch approximately 18 hours after fertilization and measure 1.3 - 1.6 mm (0.05 - 0.06 inches) SL under laboratory conditions (Fable et al. 1978). At 10 - 15 mm (0.4 - 0.6 inches) in length, larvae are most commonly found in shallow seagrass beds in bays and lagoons. At water temperatures averaging 28 ºC (82.4 ºF), larvae persist for 20 days before metamorphosis. Juveniles 6-8 weeks of age measure 2.5 - 5.0 cm (1.0 - 2.0 inches) in length and begin to form schools consisting of similarly sized individuals. Schooling behavior remains strong until approximately Age VI - VII, when both males and females become semi-solitary (Tabb 1966).
In laboratory studies, spotted seatrout larvae held at 24-26ºC (75.2 - 78.8 ºF) grew from 1.5 mm (0.05 inches) at hatching to 4.5 mm (0.18 inches) SL in 15 days (Fable et al. 1980).
Temperature: In Florida, spawning is strongly influenced by temperature and salinity. Tabb (1958) reported that spawning in south Florida begins when water temperatures near 25ºC (77 ºF), but stopped when water temperatures rose over 28 ºC (82.4 ºF). Data from the Everglades, reported by Jannke (1971), is in agreement, with large-scale spawning occurring when water temperature reached 24ºC (75.2 ºF), but becoming reduced when water temperatures were above 30 ºC (86 ºF).
Young spotted seatrout were collected from the west coast of Florida where water temperatures ranged from 12 -29 ºC (53.6 - 84.2 ºF), while in the Everglades, young seatrout were collected in waters from 16 - 32 ºC (60.8 - 89.6ºF) (Jannke 1971). Tabb (1958) reported optimum temperatures for adult spotted seatrout as 15-27 ºC (59 - 80.6 ºF). Taniguchi (1980) reported optimum larval temperature ranges from 23-33 ºC (73.4 - 91.4 ºF) in south Florida.
Winter fish kills are rare for seatrout in Florida because seatrout readily migrate to deeper, more temperature-stable channels and offshore waters (Moody 1950; Tabb 1961). Mortality was reported by Tabb (1958) reported winter fish kills of seatrout when air temperatures in winter dropped to 7 ºC (44.6 ºF) for 12 hours or more. Seatrout that migrate to deeper-water channels and offshore waters to escape low water temperatures tend to remain in these waters for the rest of the winter (Tabb 1958).
Seatrout are also known to migrate in response to high water temperatures in hot summer months, with Mahood (1974) reporting that spotted seatrout seek out colder, deeper waters in the warmest summer months.
Salinity: Adults and juveniles have similar preferences for salinity (Johnson and Seaman 1986), but abrupt salinity changes have adverse effects of spotted seatrout (Tabb 1966). Cynoscion nebulosus is found in waters where salinity ranges from 0-37 parts per thousand (ppt) (Herald and Strickland 1949; Tabb 1966; Jannke 1971). Tabb (1966) reported that seatrout abundance peaks at salinities ranging from 15-35 ppt. Spawning generally peaks when salinity in the home estuary is high, typically 30 - 35 ppt (Johnson and Seaman 1986).
In a Texas study, Wohlschlag and Wakeman (1978) reported optimum salinity for 17.4 - 43.5 cm (6.8 - 17.1 inches) fish was 20 ppt. Seatrout reportedly had difficulty maintaining swimming speed at salinities below 10 ppt, or above 45 ppt. Taniguchi (1982) reported 100% survival of eggs and larvae when salinity was 19-38 ppt.
Higman (1967) noted a positive correlation between recreational catch of spotted seatrout with annual rainfall amounts in the previous 3 years.
Oxygen: Oxygen requirements are partially dependent on salinity and temperature conditions in the environment. At an optimum temperature of 28 ºC (82.4 ºF) and salinity of 20 ppt, Wohlschlag and Wakeman (1978) reported hourly oxygen consumption was 214 - 574 mg O2/kg body weight; but was 148 - 502 mg O2/kg body weight when temp was raised to 30 ºC.
In aquaculture ponds, larval spotted seatrout died when dissolved oxygen in Texas ponds dropped below 4 ppm (Colura et al. 1976).
Trophic Mode: Cynoscion nebulosus is among the top predators in many estuaries, and sometimes is the only large carnivore in an estuary (Tabb 1966). Small seatrout 20-50mm (0.8 - 2 inches) SL are planktivorous and feed primarily on copepods (Moody 1950; Tabb 1961; Adams et al. 1973; Rutherford et al. 1982; McMichael and Peters 1989). Larger seatrout, to 70 mm (2.8 inches) in length feed primarily on benthic invertebrates, especially mysids (Moody 1950, Darnell 1958; McMichael and Peters 1989). A dietary shift occurs once seatrout reach approximately 40 - 150 mm (1.6 - 5.9 inches) and begin to feed more on penaeid shrimps and small fishes (Moody 1950; McMichael and Peters 1989). Indian River Lagoon seatrout were reported to consume shrimp in the summer and early winter, the most abundant period for shrimp; but switched to fish in late winter through spring (Tabb 1961).
Cynoscion nebulosus feed in midwater or near the surface, with major food species including anchovies, pinfish, silversides, mullet, croakers, menhaden, snapper, gobies, mojarras and silver trout (Moody 1950; Darnell 1958; Adams et al. 1973; Rutherford et al. 1982).
Competitors: Probable competitors for both food and space, particularly in the early life history stages include other sciaenids, pinfish, menhaden, catfishes, anchovies and silversides. Various types of invertebrate larvae may also compete with larval seatrout for copepods and other zooplankton (Tabb 1961; Rutherford et al. 1982).
Adult seatrout are likely to compete with other shrimp-feeding and fish-feeding species such as sand trout, Cynoscion arenarius; redfish, Sciaenops ocellatus; flounders, Paralicthyes spp., catfishes, snook, Centropomus spp., snapper, jacks, and tarpon, Megalops atlanitcus (Johnson and Seaman 1986).
Predators: Larger fishes are the major predators on Cynoscion nebulosus. Predatory birds, especially osprey, also impact seatrout populations.
Habitats: Cynoscion nebulosus are commonly found in shallow, vegetated, brackish and marine waters to a depth of approximately 10 m (32 feet). They are often associated with seagrasses and saltmarshes adjacent to deeper channels that are used as refuges from temperature extremes (Moody 1950; Tabb 1958).
Larvae are most common in shallow seagrass beds in bays and lagoons during the summer months. Juveniles and pre-recruits measuring less than 355 mm (13.9 inches) TL associate with seagrasses, though some are found in channels and backwater areas as well (Tabb 1966; McMichael and Peters 1989). Adults occur in a wide variety of estuarine habitats including shallow seagrass beds, oyster reefs, over sand bottoms, deep holes, in mangrove creeks, and in areas having manmade structures such as docks and piers.
In Florida, spotted seatrout tend to spawn and live in particular estuaries, never migrating more than short distances (Johnson and Seaman 1986). Spawning habitat includes the non-tidal areas of estuaries and bays, deeper channels adjacent to seagrass beds, near tidal passes and also nearshore waters outside of estuaries (Pearson 1929; Tabb 1961; Tabb et al. 1962; Jannke 1971).
Activity Time: Spawning typically occurs at night with individuals in the school lightly bumping one another along the sides as males in the school produce croaking and grunting sounds by vibration of their swim bladders. Feeding occurs most actively in the early morning hours (Johnson and Seaman 1986).
Special Status: Commercial, recreational fishery species.
Fisheries Importance: Cynoscion nebulosus is a major commercial and game species throughout is range, but is especially important recreationally in Florida. Between 1987 - 2001, the commercial harvest of Cynoscion nebulosus in Florida totaled 10.3 million pounds, and was valued at $12.3 million. Approximately 74% of landings occurred on Florida's west coast, which accounted for 7.6 million pounds, with a dollar value of 8.6 million. East coast commercial landings accounted for approximately 2.6 million pounds,which had a commercial vale of $3.6 million. The five-county area encompassing the IRL (Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties) accounted for 2.2 million pound of the commercial harvest, which had a value of $2.8 million. This ranks the spotted seatrout twentieth in commercial value to IRL counties, and twenty-fifth in pounds harvested.
Figure 1 below shows the dollar value of the spotted seatrout commercial fishery to IRL counties by year. The fishery ranged in value from a high of $329,756 in 1989, to a low of $44,961 in 2001. Indian River County accounted for 31.5% of the catch, followed by Volusia (28.9%), Brevard (27.7%), St. Lucie (15.7%) and Martin (1.2%) Counties.
Of note is the dramatic decrease in commercial catch after 1995, which coincides with the enactment of Florida's ban on gillnetting, and the subsequent switch to other gear types. Prior to 1995 most commercial landings of spotted seatrout were accomplished with gill nets. However, after the net ban, approximately 87% of the commercial catch between 1996-1998 was accomplished with hook and line gear, while 7% was accomplished with cast nets (Murphy et al. 1999).
Within the 5-county area of the Indian River Lagoon, spotted seatrout are highly prized gamefishes. Recreational anglers captured 1.5 million spotted seatrout between 1997 - 2004 (Table 4, Figure 3), not counting those fishes that were caught and released. The bulk of the recreational catch (52.5%) was taken within the Indian River Lagoon. Approximately 42.5% of the recreational catch is harvested from other inland waters. Anglers fishing to 3 miles offshore accounted for 4.8% of the harvest, while those fishing up to 200 miles offshore accounted for only 0.2% of the total.
Statewide, recreational anglers harvest more spotted seatrout than do commercial enterprises. Prior to 1996, recreational landings in Florida accounted for approximately 78% of statewide harvest (Murphy et al. 1999). This figure increased to 96% from 1996 - 1998 following the commercial gillnet ban. In the Atlantic coast region from Volusia county south, recreational anglers benefited greatly from the commercial gillnet ban. Prior to 1995, recreational anglers captured approximately 55% of the total catch in central to southern Florida. Following the net ban, this figure rose to 84%, with commercial interests accounting for only 16% of the total.
Fishing regulations in Florida state that spotted seatrout must be at least 15 inches total length (TL), but not more than 20 inches TL to be of legal size; however, one seatrout larger than 20 inches TL may be kept per person per day. Seatrout season is closed from December 15 - January 31, and during the spawning season from June - August on the Atlantic coast, and from May-August on the Gulf coast. A bag limit of 4 legal-sized seatrout per person per day is in effect.
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