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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Weakfish

Marine Fisheries

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WEAKFISH, Cynoscion regalis

8-point rule

Weakfish

Life History

Weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), also called gray trout, are known to inhabit waters of the Atlantic from southern Florida to Nova Scotia, Canada but are most prevalent from North Carolina to New York. They are members of the drum family and are closely related to spotted seatrout. Compared to spotted seatrout, weakfish occur in higher salinity areas of the estuary and are seasonally encountered around coastal inlets and in offshore waters. Weakfish migrate into more inshore environments and north along the U.S. Atlantic Coast in the spring and summer as water temperatures rise. Spawning occurs during this time on sandy bottom around oyster beds and deep sandy bottoms around the coastal inlets. Males drum to attract females and spawning activity usually occurs around dusk. Juvenile weakfish use the estuarine waters as a nursery area until the fall when water temperatures drop and they move into the offshore environment. Peak spawning in North Carolina is typically around April or May but females will spawn multiple times (batch spawners) throughout the spring and summer months. Most weakfish are sexually mature by age 1 and at 11 to 12 inches in length. Juvenile weakfish are opportunistic feeders, feeding on invertebrates and microscopic animals early in their life, then switching to mostly piscivorous feeding (fish eating) on small to moderately sized fish, depending on their size.

Fisheries

Historically, the commercial fishery for weakfish was substantial in North Carolina with landings sometimes exceeding 10 million pounds a year. However, after the decline in the weakfish stock in the 1990s, commercial harvest dropped sharply to the low levels seen today. Management measures were enacted in the 2000s that reduced the commercial harvest limit to 100 pounds a trip and landings have stabilized since then. Weakfish landings over the past 10 years have averaged a little over 100,000 pounds annually (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Recreational harvest of weakfish has been variable over time, but in recent years, has steadily declined and stablized to the current low levels (Figure 2). Harvest of weakfish since 2009 has been restricted to one fish per person per day and is likely a reason why the recreational harvest has remained at consistently low levels. Recreational releases have increased over the past few years, suggesting some improvement in the availability of weakfish.

Figure 2

Management

Weakfish is included in the North Carolina Fishery Management Plan for Interjurisdictional Fisheries, which defers to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Weakfish Fishery Management Plan for compliance requirements. The goal of the plan is to utilize interstate management so that weakfish recover to healthy levels that will maintain commercial and recreational harvest consistent with a self-sustaining spawning stock and to provide for restoration and maintenance of essential habitat over the range of the species. The defined stock of weakfish that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages is from Maine to Florida.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission currently manages weakfish under Amendment 4, and its subsequent addenda, to the Weakfish Fishery Management Plan. Amendment 4 was developed to address management concerns following a 2009 weakfish stock assessment which determined the stock was at a level below what is needed to be considered viable, but removals from fishing activity were not high enough to cause concern.

Stock Status Overview

  • Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2014
    • Overfishing: No
    • Overfished/Depleted: Yes

Results from the most recent stock assessment of weakfish, completed in 2016, indicate that the number of females in the population able to spawn (spawning stock biomass) remains well below the level that is considered viable for the stock. A slight increase in spawning stock biomass and an increase in recruitment (the number of age-1 fish entering the population) in the most recent years of the assessment offers some positive signs toward the rebuilding of the stock; however, sampling data from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries do not indicate any shift in trends in recent years (Figure 3). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission determined that the stock of weakfish along the U.S. Atlantic coast is depleted, but removals due to fishing are not at a level that is of concern. However, natural mortality (mortality due to factors other than fishing) was high and is most likely contributing to the slow rebuilding of the stock. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set a spawning stock biomass threshold of 15.7 million pounds coastwide for the stock to be considered viable. This number was based on the projected biomass of the population of 30 percent of an unfished stock. The estimated spawning stock biomass in 2014 (the latest available) was 5.62 million pounds.
Figure 3

Research Needs

Research needs include evaluating predation on weakfish, investigating the relationship between adult stock size and environmental factors, improving estimates of commercial discards, and developing a coastwide tagging program to characterize movement and stock mixing and to identify over-wintering grounds.

Links

Management Agencies


North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Fishery Management Plans Amendments, Revisions and Supplements


Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Stock Assessment Reports


Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Contacts

For more information, contact Steve Poland at Steve.Poland@ncdenr.gov
or 252-808-8159
Weakfish
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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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