New England Fisheries

Cool Fish, Hot Water – Black Sea Bass

A juvenile black sea bass off the north shore of Massachusetts. Black sea bass populations are shifting north due to warming waters. Photo: Alex Shure

This post was originally featured on New England Ocean Odyssey as part of a series highlighting species moving into the Gulf of Maine as water temperatures rise.

Previous posts in our Cool Fish, Hot Water series have introduced two of the species that are moving into the Gulf of Maine as water temperatures rise: seahorses and longfin squid. While seahorses are still an occasional visitor, New England’s longfin squid fishery has taken off in response to squid’s increased abundance.

This time, we’ll focus on another species with commercial potential—black sea bass.

Black sea bass are instantly recognizable by their dark brownish or bluish color, and have a very unusual life history. Most black sea bass are female when they reach maturity, but as they grow to about a foot in length (2-5 years of age), they suddenly change sex and become male for the remainder of their lives.

While the life history may be unusual, the fish itself is pretty common – to the south anyway. Black sea bass have historically been found throughout the mid-Atlantic and south to the Florida Keys. The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries says they “generally do not occur in the Gulf of Maine”, and the area around Cape Cod was once the northern edge of their range.

But that range seems to be shifting. As On the Water editor Kevin Blinkoff told the New Bedford Standard Times, “Cape Cod forms a barrier for a lot of fish. It’s been the northernmost limit for a lot of species. In recent years, though, there are fish such as black sea bass…that were thought of as a more southern New England fish that are appearing in Boston Harbor and along the North Shore.”

Black sea bass are now starting to appear north of Cape Cod, where they were once a rarity—and along the south edge of the Cape, they’re suddenly abundant.

This rapid change in the abundance of black sea bass has put strain on fisheries managers. Black sea bass are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which jointly set a quota for the fishery. 51% of the quota is allocated to recreational fishermen, while commercial fishermen get the other 49%. The commercial quota is divided up between the Atlantic states to manage independently.

Currently, the recreational catch limit is 2.26 million pounds and the commercial limit is 2.17 million pounds. Massachusetts gets 13% of this commercial quota. Over the past several years, Massachusetts has chosen to have two short seasons for black sea bass—one in the spring and one in the summer. That system worked well when sea bass weren’t as abundant, but as the fish became more plentiful in Massachusetts, regulators were having a hard time controlling the catch during the first season. There was little left to catch for summer fishermen, and the fishery was regularly exceeding its quota.

This year, Massachusetts regulators decided to eliminate the spring season entirely to better control the catch—a move that angered many fishermen, who say limiting the number of permits, not shortening the fishing season, is the best way to limit the harvest.

Now many fishermen are asking the ASMFC to address the bigger question: are black sea bass becoming more abundant everywhere, or are they moving north—and how should fisheries managers respond?

Regulators agree that figuring out the details of black sea bass distribution will require more research. An official with the ASMFC who oversees black sea bass recently told the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, “We are investigating different reasons for changes in the availability of the stock.”

Hopefully, fisheries scientists will soon determine whether more abundant sea bass in New England are a sign of recovery or redistribution. In the meantime, New England’s fishermen and divers can enjoy another new face in the Gulf of Maine.


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