Tautog (Tautoga onitis)
Tautog (Tautoga onitis)

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The management of the Commonwealth's tautog fisheries is an important priority for Marine Fisheries and the Marine Fisheries Commission. They are an important local recreational species and since 1993 many regulatory changes have been enacted to conserve this valuable fishery resource. Massachusetts was also instrumental in the creation of the 1996 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Interstate Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) for tautog.

Early in the FMP process, it became apparent that basic biological information was needed for managing tautog. Specifically age and growth information was lacking throughout most of its habitat range (Maine to Georgia), and no information at all was available from the Massachusetts fisheries. At that time a regional age-length key was created by using existing information from Rhode Island and Connecticut. While this approach was adequate for the first-ever stock assessment for this species, it was inadequate for subsequent stock assessments. In addition to age data we also had no information regarding the geographic range of local fish.

The cheekbone is used to age a tautog
The cheekbone is used to age a tautog

In order to gather Massachusetts' age and growth information, Recreational Fisheries biologists have been gathering age samples, along with length, weight, sex, and spawning condition data from local commercial and recreational catches over the past thirteen years. Additionally, samples of tautog smaller than our minimum size (16"), which are not available in landed catches, have been obtained while conducting other program work using otter trawls and fish pots. To date over 2500 samples have been collected.

Unlike many fish that can be aged from readily obtainable scales from either live or dead specimens, tautog possess very few readable scales and are therefore aged by reading annual marks found on their cheek bones. Each cheekbone must be cut from a dead fish and carefully cleaned of flesh before reading so having to use dead fish for samples compounds the difficulty of obtaining an adequate sample size. This is no small task in the commercial fisheries because much of the landed catch consists of highly valued live fish. It's also difficult to obtain enough samples in the recreational fishery, where numbers landed per trip are small, geographically restricted and occur primarily during the months of May and October.

In addition to aging work we tagged locally caught tautog in 2003 and 2004 to answer questions regarding the structure of local stocks. All but one tag return came from the same water body as where the fish was tagged and no returns came from other state's waters. This validated our instate age data collection and suggested managing on a local scale was more appropriate than under a coast wide or regional plan.

Accordingly, in 2006 Massachusetts and Rhode Island performed a local stock assessment that was accepted by the ASMFC in 2007, thereby allowing us under a special provision of the FMP to manage tautog slightly differently than the rest of the Atlantic coast states starting in 2008. However, Massachusetts will continue to contribute to the coast wide process as well as maintain a separate stock assessment and management program.