Catch limits for black sea bass more than doubled last month after a stock assessment showed that the southern population of the fish has officially recovered, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week.


Catch limits for black sea bass more than doubled last month after a stock assessment showed that the southern population of the fish has officially recovered, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week.





The change was no surprise to area fishermen, who for years complied with shortened fishing seasons and restricted catch limits while local sea bass populations surged.



“Being on the water every day off Wrightsville Beach, I haven’t ever really seen them not be recovered,” said Capt. Trevor Smith, owner of ProFishNC Charters. “We’ve been catching just a ton of sea bass pretty much all season long. They’re almost a nuisance, there are so many of them.”



Official population assessments typically lag behind what fishermen observe on the water, said Chip Collier, manager of the state Division of Marine Fisheries Wilmington district.



“This is an example where NOAA and fishermen were seeing things together; they were just operating on different timelines,” he said. “Stock assessments are usually a year or two behind what fishermen are seeing, so they saw it recover a year before this one.”



The southern population of black sea bass - stretching from Cape Hatteras to eastern Florida - has been under a federal management plan since 2006. Officials estimated then that it would take 10 years to control overfishing and rebuild the stock to sustainable levels. But population numbers have increased steadily since then, an unsurprising development given that the fish reaches reproductive maturity relatively quickly, said Jack McGovern, NOAA’s South Atlantic branch chief.



“It’s just the biology of the stock,” he said. “You have other species that live for a really long time. Red snapper lives as long as people do, so it’s going to take a long time for those to rebuild. But black sea bass only live for nine or 10 years, so you’d expect that population to recover faster.”



The results of the most recent stock assessment were presented to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in March. The council in May approved an amendment to increase catch limits for black sea bass, and the regulations from that amendment took effect Sept. 20. As a result, whole-weight catch limits increased from 847,000 pounds to 1.8 million pounds.



Smith said the increase could be good for business but would also help thin what he said was an overabundance of black sea bass in North Carolina waters.



“It’s good for the clients that want to take the fish,” he said. “It’s also good for the fishery as a whole, because it gets rid of some of the overpopulation that I believe we have of sea bass. Other species - juvenile grouper, triggerfish - aren’t as prolific, because the sea bass are eating everything.”



North Carolina is smack in the middle of black sea bass habitat, which runs from Florida all the way to Maine, so larger population numbers are the norm for the region. The additional influx of the fish is proof that the management plan was effective, McGovern said.



“It’s been reported that with the recovery of the stock, they’re seeing them in areas where they haven’t seen them in years,” he said. “They’re showing up more in shallow water where they haven’t. I think that’s what you would expect, is to have people saying that there are more black sea bass than there ever have been. That’s what you want to happen.”



 



By the numbers





The pounds caught and value of black sea bass in North Carolina.



2007 474,297 $1.2 million



2008 484,892 $1.16 million



2009 615,179 $1.4 million



2010 401,517 $947,972



2011 272,280 $627,825



2012 256,007 $687,905



Source: state Department of Environment and Natural Resources