The black sea bass occurs along the Atlantic Coast of the United States from Cape Cod to Florida, reaching greatest abundance between the Capes of New Jersey and North Carolina. This species generally does not occur in the Gulf of Maine, but it is an important groundfish west and south of Cape Cod
Black sea bass are fairly stout-bodied fish, with a long dorsal fin, and large pectoral and pelvic fins. The rounded tail sometimes has a long streamer trailing out from the top edge. Each gill cover has a flat spine near the outer edge. Mature males have a fleshy dorsal hump just anterior to the dorsal fin.
The background color of the black sea bass (smokey gray, brown, or bluish black) is mottled with darker patches and light speckles. The belly is only slightly lighter than the sides. The dorsal fin is marked with whitish mottling, while all other fins have dark spots, Young sea bass are green or brown with a dark lateral stripe running from the head to the tail.
The largest black sea bass caught by an angler in Massachusetts's waters weighed 8 pounds. However, most adults do not exceed 1.5 pounds. A 12-inch fish generally weighs 1 pound, while an 18 to 20-inch fish weighs about 3 pounds.
The black sea bass has an unusual life cycle: most individuals are hermaphroditic, reproducing both as female and a male at some time in their lives. Although some fish are males from the time they reach sexual maturity, most produce eggs when they first mature. At some subsequent point the ovary tissues in these fish become non-functional, while at the same time testes commence production of sperm. The age at which individuals "switch" from female to male is variable, although most fish have done so before they are 6 years old. In heavily exploited populations in which larger, older males are selectively harvested, the resulting death of males causes females to change sex at a younger age and smaller size than would be the case in populations less depleted by fishing. The effects of reduced abundance of males and reduced average size of females on the reproductive capacity of sea bass populations is not fully understood.
Black sea bass generally overwinter at depths from 240 to more than 600 feet, with fish inhabiting deeper waters in the New Jersey-New York region than in the mid-Atlantic region to the south. Few fish occur north of Cape May (New Jersey) in the winter, although some are known to travel extensively between Nantucket Shoals and Cape Hatteras at depths to nearly 1,100 feet. In the spring, this species displays a general northward and inshore movement, expanding its range as far north as Cape Cod from May to October. During the summer, adult sea bass gather around rocky bottoms, sunken wrecks, old pilings, and wharves. At this time of year they are most abundant at depths of less than 120 feet. Young-of-the-year and yearlings tend to summer in estuaries, which are critically important nursery grounds for this species. In southern Massachusetts, young-of-the-year start to enter estuaries in August and move offshore to depths of 180 to 360 feet during the fall. The largest adults in southern New England tend to begin their annual offshore and southerly migration as early as August, while juveniles and smaller adults migrate later in the fall.
Black sea bass reproduce from February to July, with the spawning season starting earliest in the southern portion of their range and progressing northward as spring passes. Off the southern New England coast, they reproduce from mid-May until the end of June. The eggs are buoyant, floating in the water column until they hatch 1 ½ to 5 days after fertilization. The larvae drift in bays, inlets, and offshore areas; they become bottom-dwelling when they have grown to about ½ inch in length.
Juvenile and adult black sea bass feed upon a variety of benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrate's suck as rock crabs, hermit crabs, squids, and razor clams.
The general abundance of black sea bass along the East Coast has been declining for over three decades. Further more, the average size fish harvested both commercially and recreationally has been decreasing since about 1950, indication that larger, older fish have become increasingly scarce.
Commercial harvests have been based upon otter trawl and wooden pot (similar to a lobster trap) fisheries, although hook and line is an important local gear type. Annual landings from trawlers are typically greatest from September to March, when black sea bass are distributed in more offshore waters. The total annual catch from trawl fisheries peaked in the early 1950's. Yearly landings for the entire mid-Atlantic region peaked at nearly 21,000,000 pounds in 1952, and then plummeted to less than 5% of that level by 1970.
Pots are fished from spring through late fall, enabling fishermen to harvest sea bass in areas where rugged underwater terrain makes trawling ineffective. Pot fisheries developed rapidly along much of the East Coast in the 1950's and more locally in the 1980's.
The recreational fishery has added to the decline in population abundance along the Atlantic Coast. In 1965 over half of the total catch of black sea bass was credited to recreational fishing. One survey indicated that, by 1970, the recreational catch was at least several times as great as the commercial harvest. Angling pressure increased markedly in the mid 1980's. In the north Atlantic region, including Cape Cod, recreational harvest increased nearly 500 percent between 1981 and 1986. Over the same time period, recreational harvest increased about 1400 percent in the mid-Atlantic region. From Cape Hatteras to Nova Scotia, harvest increased from 8,100,000 to 31,200,000 fish between 1985 and 1986. Local recreational harvest has averaged 18,500 fish over the past 10 years.
Both commercial and recreational harvests are now controlled through a coast-wide management plan. Commercial harvests are now controlled through a quota system, which holds annual harvests to approximately 3 million pounds. Recreational fisheries are managed with minimum sizes and bag limits adjusted as needed to achieve target harvest levels. Both local commercial and recreational harvests have risen dramatically in the past few years despite management constraints. These increased harvests appear due to an increase in local abundance.
When many anglers hear someone mention "bass," they often think first of stripers or fresh water black bass. Yet the black sea bass provides a fight and a flavor that attract a strong angler following. Long known by commercial fishermen as "rock bass," this species also carries the somewhat endearing name of "old humpback," due to the enlarged area above the head that is characteristic of many old males.
The best time to fish for black sea bass is from May through summer, when they are closest to shore. Any underwater structures, such as those associated with wrecks, jetties, and piers, will attract this species. Although they can be found from near shore to depths of about 120 feet, the largest males tend to be found in deeper waters within this depth range.
The black sea bass is predominantly a bottom-feeder, although it will occasionally strike at plugs, jigs, or lures. Thus, bait fishing with strips of squid or fish is the most productive method. The most commonly caught fish weigh from ½ to 2 pounds. You can receive the greatest enjoyment when catching fish in this size range by using a medium-weight-spinning outfit with 8-pound test line. Although a sea bass has a large mouth, use a #2 bait-holder hook tied above a small sinker; this fish normally hesitates to grab bait strung on large cod hooks.
The firm, white flesh of this species is a favorite of many. Bass are easy to fillet, especially when chilled, and yield a thick slice of meat. Some fillets are thick enough to slice lengthwise or to cut into nuggets for frying. Larger fish can be cut into steaks and cooked like striped bass. In restaurants, black sea bass are often offered as "squirrel fish," and Chinese restaurants will serve delicious whole deep-fried bass as "Hunan fish."
Try broiling black sea bass fillets. When broiling, fold under the thin section from the tail area to allow more even cooking. Place the fish in a greased pan; sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and paprika, and dot with butter or olive oil. Broil 5 to 6 minutes on each side, depending upon thickness, until the fillets are golden-brown. Be careful not to cook too long, as the fillets will dry and become somewhat leathery.
Only commercial pot fishermen holding a sea bass pot endorsement are required to submit an annual catch report to the Division of Marine Fisheries detailing pounds landed and pots fished by area and port of landing. The sea bass catch report is sent out with the renewal license application at the end of the year and is due as a requirement to renew the license for the next year. Even if you do not wish to renew your sea bass endorsement, you must submit the report to renew the license. Furthermore, if you do not intend on renewing your license, the Division would appreciate it if you submit the report anyway.
Seafood dealers who wish to purchase sea bass directly from fishermen must hold a valid Massachusetts seafood dealer permit as well as submit a primary buyer and quota managed species application to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Buying sea bass directly from fishermen without prior authorization is strictly prohibited. Once a dealer becomes a primary buyer, there are reporting requirements that must be met.