In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew unleashed hellfire and brimstone on the bass population of the Atchafalaya Basin. As anglers learned at the time, the storm whipped up half-decayed detritus from the floor of the Basin, suspended it in the water column and, ultimately, robbed the water of much of its life-sustaining oxygen.
The kill was massive and widespread, and it tore the hearts out of Basin regulars.
But not every fish died. In the flowing Atchafalaya River and in the deep, winding bayous, native bass remained just as healthy as ever, completely oblivious to the holocaust that had devastated their brethren.
They filled their bellies during the fall, hunkered down during the winter and started feeling amorous during the full moons of the spring.
To ensure that enough of them were around to spawn unmolested, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission established a 14-inch-minimum size limit on all bass caught within the Basin and in an area outside the actual levees.
It was proposed as a temporary measure designed to get enough eggs, larvae, fry and fingerlings throughout the Basin to replenish the stocks lost after the storm.
It was not intended to be permanent because biologists know a minimum size limit is one of the worst ways to manage a fishery for the long haul.
The 14-inch-minimum size limit does indeed protect bass until they’re of a spawning size, but so what? Nearly all larvae and fry from any particular bass’s nest are eaten or die of malnutrition. If any one female bass is harvested before the spawn, that means the progeny of another female bass in the same area has a greater chance of surviving.
Every habitat has a limited carrying capacity, and as much as anglers would like to see it exceeded, such a thing just isn’t possible.
So the 14-inch minimum in the Basin has produced a very predictable result — lots and lots of fish under 14 inches and a few above that mark that everyone competes for to invite for dinner.
It seems anglers are starting to realize the size restriction needs to go.
Of anglers who responded to a recent LDWF survey, a plurality — 32.3 percent — wanted to see the size restriction reduced, eliminated or altered.
Only 27 percent wanted to see the regulation remain in place.
I suspect that latter group likes the regulation because those anglers think it is leading to a healthier fishery. Most anglers are wonderfully conservation-minded, and they’ll bend over backwards to protect the species they love.
But I wonder if those anglers were asked, “Would you support a regulation that leads to lots and lots of small fish that you can’t harvest?” how many of them would respond favorably?
The Basin’s 14-inch-minimum is a relic, an emergency measure from a tragic event two decades ago that has way, way, way outlived its usefulness.
It’s time for the commission to get rid of it so the Basin’s bass population can become healthy, vibrant and balanced once again.