Black sea bass are divided into two stocks along the US Atlantic – a northern stock (north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina) and a southern stock (south of Cape Hatteras). The northern stock conducts annual offshore winter migrations between state waters (0-3 miles) and federal waters (3-200 miles) and regularly moves between the Mid-Atlantic states. As such, NOAA Fisheries, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cooperatively manage the northern stock under the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic are targeted using a variety of gears depending on the season and therefore, the location of the northern stock. When inshore, they are caught using pots and handlines and when offshore in the winter they are targeted using trawls.
Among the objectives outlined in the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass FMP are to reduce fishing mortality to ensure the stock is not overfished, reduce fishing mortality on immature and spawning black sea bass, and to promote and enforce compatible regulations between the Mid-Atlantic states and among federal and state entities. Specific measures the plan addresses to reach these objectives are:
- Annual catch limits. As of 2017 this was divided between recreational fishers (4.29 million lbs.) and commercial fishers (4.12 million lbs.) – with the annual commercial quota then being divided into state-by-state quotas;
- Minimum size limits;
- Minimum mesh sizes;
- A performance review of the fishery to be conducted every five years;
- A moratorium on new fishers entering the fishery; and,
- Closed fishing seasons.
Historically, black sea bass have been overfished in the Mid-Atlantic; however, due to management measures addressed in the FMP, the stock was officially declared rebuilt in 2009. Given that black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites and can change their sex from female to male, there is still a degree of uncertainty as to how commercial exploitation may affect the stock as well as to the actual stock size. As of a 2017 stock assessment, the northern stock is not overfished nor subject to overfishing.
The southern black sea bass stock is managed by NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council under the South Atlantic Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Among management measures outlined in the FMP are:
- Limited commercial permits;
- Annual catch limits with the fishery closing when limits are projected to be met (if the catch limit is exceeded that amount is then deducted from next year’s limit);
- Trip limits; and,
- Minimum size limits.
Additionally, there are numerous gear restrictions in place throughout the South Atlantic. These include: trap limits, minimum mesh sizes (to reduce the catch of undersized fish), requirements that pots/traps have escape vents and panels, and requirements that traps be brought back to port and the end of each trip. To address adverse impacts the fishery may cause to benthic habitats, pots are only allowed north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and trawling is banned in the South Atlantic.
The southern black sea bass stock was overfished until 2013 when the stock was officially declared rebuilt. South Atlantic catch limits have been increased each subsequent year since the fishery has been rebuilt. According to a 2013 stock assessment, the southern stock is not overfished nor subject to overfishing. Black sea bass in the Gulf of Mexico are not subject to federal management.
Management of black sea bass is complicated as climate change continues to raise ocean temperatures resulting in the species shifting out of their historical ranges to cooler, northern waters. State quotas for black sea bass are based on historical abundances and historically, black sea bass have been most abundant off North Carolina (therefore the state has received the highest catch quota). As the range shifts northward, fishers in North Carolina are having to travel further north to catch black sea bass; while, at the same time, fishers in New England are catching more black sea bass than their historically smaller quotas allow them to legally land and sell. Future management measures will need to be flexible in addressing these changes while still being effective at maintaining and supporting the fishery.