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.
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).
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
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
Cynoscion nebulosus occurs throughout the IRL, but tends
to be more abundant in its northern reaches, in the vicinity of
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.
III. LIFE HISTORY AND POPULATION BIOLOGY
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 15days (Fable
et al. 1980).
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
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.
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
Higman (1967) noted a positive correlation
between recreational catch of spotted seatrout with annual rainfall
amounts in the previous 3 years.
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
In aquaculture ponds, larval spotted seatrout
died when dissolved oxygen in Texas ponds dropped below 4 ppm (Colura
et al. 1976).
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).
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).
Larger fishes are the major predators on Cynoscion nebulosus.
Predatory birds, especially osprey, also impact seatrout populations.
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
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).
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
Commercial, recreational fishery species.
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 5 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).
Figure 1. Annual dollar
value of the commercial catch of spotted seatrout to the 5-county
area of the Indian River Lagoon.
Figure 2. Total spotted
seatrout dollar value and percentage by county for the years 1987
Table 1. Total dollar value
of IRL spotted seatrout, Cynoscion nebulosus, between 1987
Table 2. By-county annual
and cumulative percentages of the spotted seatrout harvest for the
Table 3. By-county cumulative
dollar value and percentage of total for the spotted seatrout harvest
from 1987 - 2001.
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.
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.
Figure 3. Survey data for
the spotted seatrout recreational fishery showing the number of
fishes harvested in East Florida waters from 1997 - 2004.
Figure 4. Summary of the
spotted seatrout recreational harvest and percentage of total by
area from 1997 - 2004.
Table 4. Summary data for
recreational fishery in Eastern Florida waters for the spotted seatrout,
Cynoscion nebulosus, from 1997 - 2004. Data provided
by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics Division,
Table 5. By-county annual
and cumulative percentages of the spotted seatrout harvest for the
years 1997 - 2001. Data
provided by National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics
Table 6. Summary of the
spotted seatrout recreational harvest and percentage of total fish
captured in each area from 1997 - 2004. Data provided by National
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