Black sea bass should be another New England fisheries success story. Years ago they were scarce but now they seem to be everywhere in Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds. Nevertheless, regulators farther down the coast still consider the fish in trouble, so local commercial fishermen are feeling shut out of what is an apparently healthy, growing fishery.
Each spring the black sea bass migrate into Vineyard waters to spawn and feed. It is hard not to catch them. It is a tasty fish that cooks well in a chowder, or can be served whole. Skilled chefs, most notably Chinese cooks in New York city, can’t get enough of them, so most of the black sea bass that are caught in these waters are shipped to the Big Apple.
Tom Turner, an Edgartown pot fisherman, would like to land more black sea bass. He sees them all summer long, but has had to throw them back. For most of the summer Mr. Turner fishes with pots on the bottom for conch, but he also often finds a harvestable black sea bass sitting in the pot. Last summer, Mr. Turner only had four fishing days in August when he could catch and land the fish, before the Massachusetts quota was taken.
The season was so short, another fisherman, David Medeiros also of Edgartown, didn’t even bother going out. He complained it was just too short a season to set a trap and then harvest what he caught. “It is a fishing derby,” Mr. Medeiros said.
John Potter, a charter fishing captain for the fishing party boat Skipper out of Oak Bluffs, saw a lot of black sea bass. Fortunately, recreational fishermen are allowed to catch and keep the fish. Next year is Mr. Potter’s 25th season and in all his years out in Nantucket Sound, this summer was one of the best seasons for black sea bass. “We caught them every day. You can’t beat seeing a little kid catch his first fish. And often it is a black sea bass,” Mr. Potter said.
But for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which operates out of Virginia, black sea bass are a concern, especially in the mid-Atlantic states from New Jersey to Virginia. The commission already proposes to keep next year’s quota close to the same as it was this year.
This year the Atlantic quota for black sea bass from Massachusetts to North Carolina was 3.6 million pounds. (Commercial fishermen were allocated 1.76 million pounds and recreational fishermen, 1.84 million pounds.) For purposes of comparison, the commission had a limit of 20 million pounds for scup, another popular and common fish in Vineyard waters.
The Massachusetts commercial quota for black sea bass this year was 259,240 pounds. The striped bass quota this year in Massachusetts was 1.2 million pounds.
Mr. Turner and other local commercial fishermen think the fish has more than rebounded and say it is abundant. About 15 years ago, Mr. Turner said he could devote one day a week to catching black sea bass. Oddly, he said, they were far less abundant then.
Now, Mr. Turner believes, sport fishermen are literally landing tons of fish while he and other small commercial fishermen on the water continue to be restricted. That to him is unfair.
Dan McKiernan, a deputy director for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the state is listening to Mr. Turner’s concerns. This winter, the state will seek comment on finding a more equitable fishing season for the commercial fishermen. And while Massachusetts fisheries managers cannot change next year’s black sea bass quota, they are looking at a better way to allocate it.
“The question is, how do you deal with a quarter-million-pound quota?” Mr. McKiernan said.
In years past the black sea bass quota was close to a 50-50 split, Mr. McKiernan said. Half of all the black sea bass were landed by commercial fishermen and half by recreational fishermen.
“Recreational fishermen are seeing larger catches. In the past year, 73 per cent of the black sea bass were caught by recreational fishermen. That is a three-to-one ratio,” Mr. McKiernan said.
He said the state is looking for comment from the fishermen on how to address the problem.
Meanwhile, black sea bass are not as abundant in the mid-Atlantic states, and Mr. McKiernan said that begs the bigger question, have the black sea bass moved north in the summer due to rising water temperatures?
More research is needed on the subject, fisheries managers agree. Toni Kerns, a senior management plan coordinator with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission who oversees black sea bass, said: “We are investigating different reasons for changes in the availability of the stock.”
The life history of the fish also is being reexamined. Unlike most fish in the sea, black sea bass are hermaphrodites. They can spend part of their lives as a male and then become female. Not enough is known about the phenomenon and its impact on the population. “When you take those large females out of the population, how does that impact the males? Do males have to transform to females?” Ms. Kerns said.
This winter the commission plans to host workshops on black sea bass for scientists and fishermen in an effort to gain more insight. Among other things they will examine different techniques that could be used offshore to survey the fish. “Right now we do trawl surveys,” Ms. Kerns said. But the fish live at different depths at different times in the year. “We know they look for habitat on the bottom during certain times of the year. We are trying to figure out what is going on with the stock,” she said.
Commercial pot fishing for black sea bass is low impact; fishermen use enclosed pots that sit on the bottom. No bait or hooks are used. The fish swimming around looking for habitat on a mostly sandy bottom, move into the pots.
Years ago Mr. Turner helped National Marine Fisheries Service scientists at Woods Hole do a survey of black sea bass for three years. He would catch the fish, which would then be tagged and released. Black sea bass spend the winter in deep water, and in spring move closer to the coast. Mr. Turner learned that the fish he tagged would return to the same spot every year. “I think we have a discrete population. The fish in the mid-Atlantic are a different fish,” he concluded.
Mr. Turner wants the state to restrict the spring black sea bass fishery and open up the summer fishery for more than four days a season. Because black sea bass come into waters around the Island to spawn in the spring, a spring harvest season is easy but counterproductive. “All they do is open it up and burn the quota,” Mr. Turner said.
Mr. McKiernan said he welcomes this kind of comment from the fishermen, and he said spring fishing may well be subject to change. “It might be in two years that you see a change. But . . . you might not get the relief you are looking for,” he said, adding:
“If this isn’t a recovered stock, it is a redistributed stock. And they are at our front door.”