Spotted sea trout surged, shorebirds struggled, and the water’s safe for swimming 

An angler holds up a red drum, the state saltwater game fish of Georgia. (Credit: David Cannon)

The Gist

Spotted sea trout flourished, sea turtles and shorebirds struggled, and blue crabs crawled their way out of trouble in ever-warming coastal waters last year. Those are a few of the findings in the Coastal Resources Division’s annual Coastal Georgia Ecosystem Report Card, released today. 

What's Happening

Every year since 2014, the Department of Natural Resources collects data on 12 indicators of coastal ecosystem health that impact humans, fisheries and wildlife and issues a report card. 

Based on data collected in 2023, Georgia’s coastal ecosystem this year earned a B, which equates to a “moderately good health score” of 78%, up from last year’s score of 74%. 

Click here to see the full 2023 Coastal Ecosystem Report Card. 

The ecosystem indicators and scoring methods for the report card were developed with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which has helped to create other ecosystem health assessments around the country. 

This year, red drum remained plentiful and spotted sea trout numbers improved, as the sea trout count in the Wassaw and Ossabaw sound systems rebounded. The report said a 2016 regulation that increased the minimum catch size limit for sea trout is helping. 

Shrimp numbers improved a bit, too, just in time for their recognition as the state’s official crustacean by the Georgia Legislature this year. 

Shrimp boat off coastal Georgia (Credit: Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

According to the Department of Natural Resources, the dockside amount of wild-caught “food shrimp” brought in by commercial fisheries increased to 2.6 million pounds from 2.1 million pounds in 2023 (though the overall dockside value of Georgia shrimp decreased to $9.4 million from $11.3 million, largely due to competition from foreign suppliers of lower-priced, imported frozen shrimp).

Blue crabs got a D in the report but improved from a score of 18% last year to 32%. Warm coastal waters and increased salinity in the water could explain why crab numbers were low in the survey, but the report also noted its sample size of crab was skewed because its trawling vessel was out of commission for part of 2023. The amount of blue crab caught by commercial fisheries increased to 3.4 million pounds in 2023 from 3.1 million pounds in 2022, with a dockside value of $7 million. 

Overall, the dockside value of all commercial fisheries tracked by Natural Resources in Georgia in 2023 was $19.7 million, about $2 million less than in 2022.

The lowest scorers

American Oystercatchers (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

As was the case last year, shorebirds in general and American oystercatchers in particular were the animals that scored the lowest. Wildlife biologist Tim Keyes said big storms that hit the coast washed out and degraded the beaches and marsh islands where oystercatchers nest. Shorebirds, including wood storks, were also preyed on by raccoons, opossum, coyotes and hogs that live in remote coastal areas. 

Keyes said the Coastal Resources Division is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to build new 10-foot-high sand islands and sandbars using dredged-up sediment near Cumberland Island and along the Intracoastal Waterway to give the birds a boost and a better place to roost.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species, dropped to a C grade from a B, primarily due to increased predation. Sea turtle nesting sites were plentiful once again, with 3,431 loggerhead nests located, and a 52% emergence rate for hatchlings. But many of the eggs and baby turtles were gobbled by wild hogs, raccoons, coyotes before they could make their journey to the sea, according to the Wildlife Resources Division report.

The good news

St. Andrews Beach, Jekyll Island (Credit: Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources)

The report contains good news for humans who like to cavort in coastal waters, as the water quality index received an A, at 89%. Overall indicators show the water is generally safe to swim in and to eat local shellfish, that oxygen levels support fish and other species, and bacteria is at acceptably low levels.

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