Sunday, February 25, 2024



The northern stock of black sea bass, which includes all such fish found north of Cape Hatteras, was still overfished in 2007.  But from that point on, thanks to good fishery management and a boost from Mother Nature, the stock experienced a startlingly fast recovery, with the spawning stock biomass spiking at nearly 2.4 times the biomass target in 2014.

The sharp increase in black sea bass numbers was due, in part, to a warming ocean.  Black sea bass recruitment is largely dependent upon the conditions experienced by Year 0 fish during their first winter which is spent near the edge of the continental shelf, with warm, saline water increasing the survival of young fish.  

A warming coastal sea has also shifted the abundance of older fish northward.  The population model used to assess the stock indicates that, prior to 2005, spawning stock biomass in the northern region (New York and New England) averaged around 1,300 metric tons.  After that, it began to increase significantly, reaching nearly 16,300 metric tons—more than a 12-fold increase—in 2016, before dropping back to an average of 13,400 metric tons in the years since.

Sea bass landings spiked, too, particularly in New England, where they increased from 350,000 fish in 2007 to 1,850,000 fish in 2010, eventually peaking around 2,550,000 million fish in 2021, even as size and bag limits grew ever more restrictive.

The fish became so abundant that, anywhere between New Jersey and Massachusetts, it was hard not to run into them, regardless of what an angler was fishing for.  Because of such abundance, anglers began making more and more trips targeting the species.  Again using numbers for just the New England fishery, 2007 saw anglers make about 56,000 trips that primarily targeted black sea bass.  Directed black sea bass trips more than doubled, to 190,000, in 2010, and rose to about 785,000 in 2021, when landings peaked. 

Fishery managers were both unable and unwilling to constrain recreational black sea bass landings, even though such landings regularly exceeded both the recreational harvest limit and the annual catch limit.  Beginning in 2019, both the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Management Board chose to maintain status quo, or near status-quo, black sea bass landings, even though the annual catch limit for the recreational sector had been chronically exceeded, triggering the accountability measures incorporated into the fishery management plan.

Such attitudes have continued to the present day,  At the December joint meeting of the Council and Management Board, fishery managers chose to ignore a regulation that clearly called for a 10% reduction in recreational black sea bass landings, justifying their actions by arguing that such regulation didn’t contemplate the situation where a stock assessment was delayed and managers were forced to make their decision based on three-year-old stock status data.  And, as happened in the past, even though average recreational landings for the previous three years exceeded the average annual catch limit, both Council and Board failed to adopt any accountability measures, this time claiming that a 10% landings reduction imposed the previous year, coupled with a new model for setting recreational harvest limits, eliminated the need to hold anglers responsible for their past excesses.

Perhaps because of the increased fishing pressure, abetted by fishery managers’ failure to make even a half-hearted effort to constrain recreational catch to or below the sector’s annual catch limit, something interesting is happening in at least part of the sea bass’ northern range.

The average size of the fish caught by anglers seems to be shrinking.

I’ve always fished for black sea bass from time to time, but given that the stock was overfished, and that sea bass were, for a very long time, largely small and rarely abundant, I didn’t start putting in any significant effort until about 15 years ago.  At that point, spawning stock biomass was still rebuilding, although it had nearly achieved its target level.  Regulations, as I recall, included a 15-fish bag limit, a size limit of 13 inches or so, and a season that started sometime in the spring.  Even though the season had been open for a couple of months, I could still run out to a local wreck (located in about 85 feet of water off Fire Island, New York), and over the course of a couple of hours, catch a limit of fish that included many large males weighing more than three pounds; using two baited hooks, I'd regularly catch a few double-headers of sea bass big enough that their combined weight broke the seven-pound mark. 

Despite the quality of the fishing, I could often run out to a wreck and be the first, and often the only, boat to fish it that day.

A few years later, because of increasing angling pressure, the season had been shortened, to begin in July, while the bag limit was cut to eight fish and the size limit increased by a little.  Still, when I ran out at the start of the season, before the larger fish had been picked off the wreck, I could still limit out, with the smallest fish around 16 inches and the largest over four pounds, in less time than it took me to run to the wreck from the inlet.

But not long after that, things changed.  The size limit had been increased again, and the bag limit cut to just three fish.  On the same wreck where I could once limit out with eight quality fish in well under an hour, it now took me a couple of hours, even on the first day of the season, to find three 16-inch fish.  

Last year, even fishing with jigs, which typically catch larger fish than does bait, I shuffled through nearly 40 black sea bass without finding a single fish that broke the 16 ½-inch minimum size.

The fishing club that I belong to is made up of nearly 100 members, with most being skilled and experienced anglers.  Yet it only had two black sea bass entered into its annual contest last year, and both weighed less than three pounds.

And shrinking black sea bass aren’t only found off Fire Island.  When I speak to anglers, and some professional captains, who fish both off Montauk and off Long Island’s West End, I hear the same stories of having to return large numbers of undersized fish in order to find—if luck favors the fisherman—one, or two, or maybe three legal fish.

Shrinking fish size is usually a warning to fishery managers, a sign that all is not well with the stock, with too many fish being removed from the water too soon.

In the case of black sea bass, a recent research-track stock assessment makes it clear that the fish is not currently in any trouble at all.  Although spawning stock biomass has declined from its peak, when it stood at nearly 240% of the SSB target, it remained robust in 2021, when it was still estimated to be at about 181% of its target level.  Recruitment of new fish into the population also appears to be fairly strong.

If there is any cause for concern, it is that mild overfishing seems to have occurred in 2021, when the threshold fishing mortality rate was exceeded by about 8%.  Assuming that spawning stock biomass has continued to decline since 2021, and recognizing that excessive recreational landings continue to drive catch above the annual catch limit, the next management track assessment, which will be released later this year, may well find that such overfishing continued, at an accelerated rate.

Even if that is the case, there is no cause for panic.  There are still plenty of black sea bass around, and should be for some years to come.

However, it may be time for both anglers and, particularly, fishery managers, to stop taking black sea bass abundance for granted, and to recognize that even very abundant species can experience overfishing, and that such overfishing, if not addressed in time, can have a negative impact on both the fish and on the fishermen who pursue them.



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