Scientist aboard the NEAMAP SNE/MA Nearshore Trawl Survey with a dominant, male black sea bass as evidenced by the nuchal hump right at the top of its head before its dorsal fin. Photo credit: NEAMAP.
Black sea bass (Centropristis striata) inhabit Atlantic coastal waters from the Gulf of Maine to the Florida Keys, concentrating in areas from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, Florida. A temperate reef fish, black sea bass commonly inhabit rock bottoms near pilings, wrecks, and jetties. Black sea bass rely on their large mouth and swift ocean currents to catch prey, which include fish, crabs, mussels, and razor clams. Two distinct stocks of black sea bass exist along the Atlantic coast with overlapping ranges. The northern stock migrates seasonally. Black sea bass summer in northern inshore waters at depths of less than 120 feet and winter in southern offshore waters at depths of 240 to 540 feet. Spawning occurs off of New England in the late summer.
Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, which mean they start life as a female and then change sex to become males when they reach 9-13 inches (2 - 5 years of age). Thirty-eight percent of females in the Mid-Atlantic demonstrate sex reversal between August and April, after most fish have spawned. Even though some fish are males when they reach sexual maturity, most produce eggs when they first mature. Following transition, a sea bass will either become a dominant male, characterized by a larger size and a bright blue nuchal hump during spawning season (see accompanying photo), or a subordinate male that has few distinguishing features.
Black sea bass are highly sought by both commercial and recreational fishermen throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Fisheries change seasonally with changes in fish distribution. Inshore and more southern commercial fisheries primarily use fish pots and handlines, and when fish move offshore in the winter, they are primarily caught in trawl fisheries targeting summer flounder, scup, and Loligo squid. Recreational fisheries generally occur during the period that sea bass are inshore (May to September), but season duration varies among the states. Since the fishery management plan’s approval in 1997, the black sea bass commercial fishery has operated under a quota. The recreational fishery is restricted by a coastwide recreational harvest limit.
Commercial landings have been recorded since the late 1800s. Fish were primarily harvested by handlines until the early 1950s. From 1887 through 1948, commercial landings north of Cape Hatteras fluctuated around six million pounds. By 1952, with the emergence of the trap fishery, landings peaked at 22 million pounds. Since 1998, commercial landings have been primarily influenced by the commercial quotas. Between 1998 and 2007, landings averaged 2.8 million pounds. From 2008 to 2012, reduced quotas resulted in average landings of only 1.6 million pounds. From 2017-2021, higher quotas resulted in commercial landings of ranging between 3.34 million pounds in 2018 to 4.50 million pounds in 2021. The 2022 landings were 5.10 million pounds, which was under the coastwide quota of 6.47 million pounds by approximately 20%. Commercial fishery discards historically represented a small fraction of total fishery removals from the stock at less than 0.4 million pounds per year, but have increased in recent years. From 2016-2022, commercial dead discards ranged from 1.03 million pounds in 2020 to 2.26 million pounds in 2017. In 2022, commercial dead discards were 1.39 million pounds. Otter trawls and fish pots/traps have accounted for the majority of the black sea bass landings in most states. Other important gear include handlines and lobster pots.
Black sea bass are also an important recreational species in the Mid-Atlantic, commonly caught using squid and natural bait. In 1965, over half of the total catch of black sea bass was credited to recreational fishing. In 2018, recreational harvest estimates from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) were recalibrated based on the new Fishing Effort Survey (FES). In general the recalibration resulted in higher harvest estimates throughout the time series, with more divergence in recent years. After a peak in 1986 at 11.19 million pounds, recreational harvest averaged 5.02 million pounds annually from 1987 to 1997. Recreational harvest limits were put in place in 1998 and harvest generally increased from 1.92 million pounds in 1998 to 9.06 million pounds in 2015 (Table 5). In 2016 and 2017 harvest jumped up to 12.05 and 11.48 million pounds, respectively; however, the 2016 and 2017 estimates are regarded as implausibly high outliers by the Technical Committee. Recreational harvest for black sea bass from Maine to Cape Hatteras peaked again in 2021 at 11.97 million pounds (6.44 million fish), before declining the following year by 32% to 8.14 million pounds (4.57 million fish).Recreational live discards as a proportion of total catch have generally increased over the time series, averaging 46% in the 1980s, and 85% over the last decade. According to MRIP, total live recreational discards from Maine to Virginia were 35.40 million fish in 2022. Assuming 15% hook and release mortality, estimated recreational discard losses in 2022 were estimated to be 5.31 million fish, equal to 54% of the total recreational removals (harvest plus dead discards).
An operational assessment that incorporated new recreational harvest estimates was peer reviewed in July 2021. The assessment found that the black sea bass stock north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring in 2019 relative to revised reference points.
Starting in 2007, spawning stock biomass (SSB) increased rapidly and reached a peak in 2014 at over 76 million lbs., then decreased slightly. In 2019 SSB was estimated at 65.63 million pounds, 2.1 times the updated biomass target of 31.84 million lbs. The average fishing mortality in 2019 was 0.39, 85% of the updated fishing mortality threshold of 0.46. To account for the fact that black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, which change sex from female to male, the assessment defined SSB as the total of male and female mature biomass to adjust for changes in sex ratio.
Recruitment of the 2018 year class as age 1 in 2019 was estimated at 4.62 million fish; however the retrospective adjustment estimated recruitment at 79.4 million, well above the time series average. The 2011 year class was estimated to be the largest in the time series at 144.7 million fish and the 2015 year class was the second largest at 79.4 million fish. Over the past decade, the distribution of the fishery and catches has generally expanded northward.
Black sea bass is managed jointly by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) under Amendment 13 to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan (August 2002) and its subsequent addenda (Addenda XII-XXXII). The objectives of the FMP are to reduce fishing mortality to assure overfishing does not occur, reduce fishing mortality on immature black sea bass to increase spawning stock biomass, improve yield from the fishery, promote compatible regulations among states and between federal and state jurisdictions, promote uniform and effective enforcement, and minimize regulations necessary to achieve the stated objectives.
The recreational fishery is currently managed on a regional basis using a combination of minimum size limits, bag limits and fishing seasons to achieve a regional allocation of the recreational harvest limit (RHL). The coastwide commercial quota is divided among the states annually. Specific management measures for the commercial fishery are set by each state, which may include 1) minimum size limits, 2) minimum mesh requirements for trawls or 3) a moratorium on entry into the fishery and closed seasons.
The Commission and Council approved a 4.8 million pound commercial quota and a 6.57 million pound RHL for the 2023 fishing season, and 6.00 million pound commercial quota and a 6.27 RHL for the 2024 fishing season.
In December 2018, the Board approved Addenda XXXI and XXXII to the FMP. Addendum XXXI adds to the suite of tools available for management, with particular focus on enhancing the compatibility of state and federal regulations, by allowing the use of conservation equivalency for recreational management starting in 2020. Conservation equivalency allows recreational management measures in federal waters measures to be waived, and instead requires recreational anglers to abide by the measures of the state in which they land their catch. The Board and Council will annually decide whether to enact conservation equivalency.
Addendum XXXII establishes an annual specifications process for developing recreational management measures. The Board will approve regional measures in early spring each year, based on technical committee analysis of stock status, resource availability, and harvest estimates. Public input on specifications will be gathered by states through their individual public comment processes. The specifications process will provide the Board more flexibility in adjusting measures, if necessary, to constrain harvest to the annual coastwide recreational harvest limit (RHL). Further, the process will enable the Board to consider a host of factors, including: regional equity; regulatory stability; species abundance and distribution; and late-breaking recreational harvest estimates.
In June 2021, the Board and MAFMC jointly approved final changes to the management program for black sea bass commercial fisheries. These changes include modifying the state allocations of the commercial black sea bass quota, adding the state allocations to the MAFMC's Fishery Management Plan (FMP), and modifying the regulations for federal in-season closures. The Board adopted the new allocations through Addendum XXXIII to the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass FMP, while the Council recommended to NOAA Fisheries these changes through Amendment 23 to its FMP. These actions address significant changes in the distribution of black sea bass that have occurred since the original allocations were implemented under Amendment 13 in 2003 and also account for the historical dependence of the states on the black sea bass fishery. In August 2023, NOAA Fisheries partially approved Amendment 23, by approving changes to the commercial in-season quota trigger, but disapproved adding the state-by-state quota allocations to the Federal FMP. However, the state-by-state quota allocations for black sea bass remain in effect through the Commission’s Addendum XXXIII.
In December 2021, the Board and the Council took final action on a joint amendment to reevaluate the FMP’s commercial and recreational allocations. This action aimed to address the allocation-related impacts of the revised recreational catch and landings data provided by MRIP. The changes were effective January 1, 2023.
In June 2022, the Commission’s Interstate Fisheries Management Program Policy Board (Policy Board) and MAFMC approved changes to the recreational fisheries management programs for summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, and bluefish. The changes include a new process for setting recreational measures (bag, size, and season limits) and modifications to the recreational accountability measures. The Policy Board and MAFMC recommended these changes through a framework action, and the Policy Board adopted the new process through Addendum XXXIV to the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and Addendum II to the Bluefish FMP. Approval of this new process is part of a broader long-term effort by both the Commission and MAFMC to improve recreational management of these four species. The new management program aims to provide greater stability and predictability in recreational measures from year-to-year while accounting for uncertainty in recreational catch estimates.
The Policy Board and MAFMC considered a range of management options and ultimately selected one referred to as the “Percent Change Approach,” with an agreement to continue development of several other options for possible implementation by 2026. Under the selected approach, managers will consider two factors when determining whether recreational measures should be restricted, liberalized, or remain unchanged for the next two years. First, they will look at how recreational harvest limits (RHLs) for the next two years compare to recent estimates of recreational harvest. This gives an indication of whether recreational harvest is likely to exceed the RHL if management measures remain unchanged. Next, managers will consider the most recent estimate of stock size relative to the target stock size. These two factors, in combination, will be used to determine the percentage change in harvest that management measures should aim to achieve.
Under the new process, when recent harvest estimates are close to the future RHL, management measures will either remain unchanged or be reduced or liberalized by 10%, depending on stock size relative to the target. In cases where the RHL is substantially above or below recent harvest estimates, the specific reduction or liberalization will vary based on stock size and will either be fixed at 10% or will be based on the difference between recent harvest and the RHL but capped at 20% or 40% (see table on page 11 for additional details). The Policy Board and MAFMC selected this option because it uses currently available data and gives additional consideration to stock status when making management decisions. Under this approach, changes will be considered every other year when new scientific information about the stock is available.
While the Percent Change Approach is similar in some ways to the current process for setting recreational measures, there are several key differences. To account for uncertainty in recreational data, future RHLs will be evaluated relative to the confidence intervals around recent recreational harvest estimates. A confidence interval indicates the range of possible values given the statistical uncertainties around the estimate. The new process also places greater emphasis on stock status, potentially reducing the magnitude of restrictions in measures when the stock status is healthy. Finally, the new process will provide greater stability, as measures will be set for two years at a time instead of every year.
The Policy Board and MAFMC acknowledged this approach will not solve all recreational fisheries management challenges. With this in mind, they agreed to continue refinement of the Percent Change Approach as well as two other options considered within the Draft Framework/Addenda, with particular emphasis on using improved statistical models to develop measures. Use of the approved Percent Change Approach will sunset no later than the end of 2025 with a goal of implementing a new and improved approach to managing the recreational fisheries by the beginning of 2026.
The Policy Board and MAFMC also revised the recreational accountability measures for all four species. Specifically, when biomass is between the target and threshold levels, the requirement of paying back recreational catch limit overages will account for whether those overages contributed to overfishing based on the most recent stock assessment information.
The Policy Board and MAFMC considered but did not recommend an option to set constraints around the use of the Commission’s conservation equivalency policy as applied to the recreational fisheries for these four species. They decided to maintain the current policy to allow individual states the flexibility to tailor management measures to meet the needs of their fisheries.
The Framework/Addenda’s changes to the recreational management program are final for state waters (0-3 miles from shore) and was used to develop 2023 recreational measures for summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass. The new process will not be used for bluefish until the stock is declared rebuilt.