Back in Black: Black Sea Bass Stock is Rebuilt

The southern stock of black sea bass has been successfully rebuilt and annual catch limits will now more than double.

The wait wasn’t easy but it’s over. In May of this year, NOAA scientists declared the southern stock of black sea bass successfully rebuilt. The short seasons and low catch limits that fishermen have endured in recent years are about to pay off—the catch limit for this popular fish will more than double this fall.

The southern stock of black sea bass, which ranges from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to the Florida Keys, was declared overfished in 2005. The following year, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council implemented the rebuilding plan, which ended successfully this past spring.

The rebuilding plan was required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that governs the nation’s marine fisheries. The Act requires that overfishing end immediately, that overfished stocks be rebuilt, and that stocks be subject to annual catch limits.

“This shows that catch limits work,” said Jack McGovern, the South Atlantic Branch Chief for NOAA Fisheries. “People are seeing more black sea bass than they have since the 1970s.” The fish are also larger on average and are showing up in places where they haven’t been seen in decades.  

The southern stock of black sea bass is only the latest to cross the rebuilding finish line. A total of 34 stocks have now been rebuilt since 2000.

Increased Opportunity for Fishermen

For Robert Johnson, a charter boat captain out of St. Augustine, Florida, this will mean a longer fishing season and more customers. "We're a tourist-driven economy here in Florida," Johnson said, noting that hotels and restaurants in his area are also looking forward to a longer fishing season.

Black sea bass is a popular species among recreational anglers throughout its range. That’s because in addition to being a particularly tasty fish, black sea bass are relatively accessible. “The nice thing about black sea bass is you don’t need a million-dollar boat to catch them,” Johnson said.

According to the latest Fisheries Economics of the U.S. report, in 2011 recreational marine fishing in the South Atlantic states generated more than 52,000 jobs and added just short of $3 billion of value to the nation’s GDP.

Black sea bass is also an important commercial species. Tom Burgess is a fisherman out of Sneed's Ferry, North Carolina. Like most commercial black sea bass fishermen, he catches the fish in baited pots. "What we’re experiencing now was worth the wait," said Burgess, who expects his income to rise with the catch limit.

Catch Limits and Accountability Measures Make Rebuilding Possible

In 2005, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council considered two alternative rebuilding strategies. One cut catch limits steeply up front but allowed them to rise steadily as the stock rebuilt. The other involved less pain initially but held catch limits constant for the duration of the plan. The Council chose the constant catch plan.

As the black sea bass stock was rebuilding, there was pressure to let up on the catch limits. People were seeing more fish, and they wanted to catch them.

"There were a lot of frustrated fishermen out there," Robert Johnson said.

But the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that catch limits be set at a level that prevents overfishing and that the limits include accountability measures. These measures ensure that, if the annual catch limit is met early or exceeded, then any overages are balanced out with in-season closures, a reduced catch the following year, or other corrective measures.

It is this combination of annual catch limits and accountability measures that give the rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act their force. Without them, the black sea bass stock might have followed what was once a more common trajectory, with any increase in numbers being quickly fished down.

Instead, the stock was rebuilt, which means that the population is now large enough to produce its maximum sustainable yield—the largest annual catch that won’t cause the population to diminish over time. Managing stocks at or near this level allows fishermen to extract the greatest value from fish populations today while also maintaining a healthy stock for future generations.

For the fishermen who had to live with low catch limits so that black sea bass could rebuild, the new catch limits will be an extra-large dose of good news. Because they were held constant during the rebuilding years, catch limits are now set to more than double. Last year both the recreational and commercial seasons were over by early fall. This year fishermen should still be having at it into late fall or early winter..