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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

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Marine Fisheries - Black Sea Bass SOH

Marine Fisheries

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BLACK SEA BASS, Centropristis striata

South of Cape Hatteras

8-point rule

Black sea bass

Life History

Black sea bass (Centropristis striata) is a temperate marine species that inhabits offshore irregular hard-bottom areas, such as wrecks, reefs and rock ledges from Cape Cod to Cape Canaveral. Black sea bass north and south of Cape Hatteras are recognized as different stocks, and managed by different federal fishery management councils. Those south of Cape Hatteras are usually found closer inshore with other tropical reef fish such as snappers, groupers, porgies and grunts. Unlike the northern stock, seasonal (north to south) migrations of black sea bass south of Cape Hatteras has not been documented in tagging studies. However, black sea bass south of Cape Hatteras show an east to west migration in the winter months.

Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they change sex with size and age. All black sea bass start life as females and transition into males between the ages of 2 to 5 years old. Females reach sexual maturity at around 7.5 inches total length, and males at 9 inches total length. South Atlantic black sea bass spawn throughout the spring and summer with peak spawning occurring from March through May. The number of eggs produced per fish in a spawning season ranges from 30,000 to 500,000 depending on the size of the fish. Black sea bass spawn offshore and larvae settle into the estuaries and nearshore reefs. As the fish get older they tend to migrate to deeper water where they inhabit irregular hard-bottom areas such as wrecks, artificial reefs and rock outcroppings.

Black sea bass may live up to 20 years and reach 24 inches total length and 6 pounds; however, fish over 9 years old are rare. Black sea bass are opportunistic feeders and consume a variety of prey types including crabs, shrimp, worms, small fish and clams.


Commercial gear used in the black sea bass fishery, as defined by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, includes bandit reels, electric reels, manual hook and line, fish pots and spears. Bandit reels, electric reels and pots are the most common gear types used south of Cape Hatteras. Commercial landings have declined since 2009. Following an increase in the annual catch limit which was raised from 309,000 pounds to 780,020 pounds for the 2013-2014 fishing year, landings peaked in 2014. Landings again declined in 2015 and 2016, following modifications to trip limits and a winter fish pot fishery closure. In 2017, landings increased slightly following changes to the winter fish pot fishery from a season to area closure (Figure 1). The 10 year average landings (2008 to 2017) for the commercial fishery is 259,894 pounds.

Figure 1

The recreational fishery mainly uses conventional hook and line gear to catch black sea bass; however, some anglers use electric reels and spears. The numbers of fish released peaked in 2012 following an increased recreational size limit and a decreased bag limit. In 2017, there was a slight increase in the number of fish harvested following an increase in the recreational bag limit (Figure 2). On average 90 percent of the black sea bass caught recreationally are released each year; in the past five years 95 percent or more have been released. The 10 year average recreational landings (2008 to 2017) south of Cape Hatteras is 71,315 fish, while the 10 year average of fish released is about 1.2 million fish.

Figure 2


In North Carolina, the stock of black sea bass south of Cape Hatteras is currently included in the North Carolina Interjurisdictional Fishery Management Plan, which defers to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council fishery management plan requirements. Amendment 13C (2006) established a commercial quota and set additional pot restrictions. It also established a recreational allocation that increased the recreational minimum size limit and reduced the bag limit. For both the commercial and recreational sectors, the fishing year was changed from calendar year to June 1 through May 31. Amendment 15A (2008) established a rebuilding plan and status determination criteria for black sea bass. Accountability measures and annual catch limits were developed in Amendment 17B (2010). Regulatory Amendment 9 (2011) again reduced the recreational bag limit. Amendment 18A (2012) revised the rebuilding strategy to include annual catch limits and accountability measures, increased size limits for commercial and recreational fisheries and established a sea bass pot endorsement program for the commercial fishery with a trip limit. Regulatory Amendment 19 (2013) adjusted the annual catch limit for both the commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as implemented an annual sea bass pot closure from Nov. 1 to April 30 to address concerns regarding the potential for right whale interactions. Regulatory Amendment 14 (2014) modified the recreational fishing year for black sea bass to April 1-March 31; modified the commercial fishing year to Jan. 1-Dec. 31; reduced the trip limit to 300 pounds (gutted weight) for the commercial hook and line sector from Jan. 1- April 30; and modified the accountability measures for the recreational fishery. Regulatory Amendment 25 (2016) increased the recreational bag limit of black sea bass from five to seven fish. Regulatory Amendment 16 (2016-2017) changed the prohibition on pots during the seasonal closure and instituted an area closure based on depth to minimize the potential for right whale interactions, as well as implemented additional marking requirements for sea bass pot buoy lines by area and season.

Minimum size limits, daily bag limits, trip limits, gear restrictions and regulations designed to reduce release mortality have been put in place to keep harvest below the annual catch limits and ensure a sustainable fishery.

Stock Overview

  • Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2016
    • Overfishing: No
    • Overfished: No

In 2017, the Southeast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR) completed a new black sea bass stock assessment (SEDAR 56). It indicated that the stock is not overfished and that overfishing is not occurring. However, there is some concern about the stock since there was a decreasing trend in biomass caused by what appeared to be below average recruitment in the last four years of the assessment. This low recruitment may or may not continue in future years, though input from stakeholders has suggested that these low recruitment events were a short lived phenomena.

Research Needs

Research priorities at the state level include: determining methods for estimating historic landings in both recreational and commercial fisheries; determining if stock structure exists in the South Atlantic for both adult and juvenile black sea bass and investigating movements and migrations; continuing discard sampling and expanding to collect information on depth, location, age and size distribution of discarded fish; continuing to collect life history data, including data on age and growth, reproduction and mortality; and expanding fishery independent indices to cover a wider geographic range.

Federal research needs include: the continued monitoring of catches; establishing a more comprehensive sampling program for ages and lengths from the recreational fleet; gathering more depth data from private boat anglers; the continued federal tagging projects; developing age information; identifying alternative targets for fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass; developing a juvenile abundance index; investigating discard mortality due to hooks in shallow waters; investigating the potential for a range shift in the population, and the potential causes, such as climate change; and determining if stock structure exists.


Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
South Atlantic Fishery Management Council
National Marine Fisheries Service (Southeast Regional Office)

Fishery Management Plans Amendments, Revisions and Supplements

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

Stock Assessment Reports

National Marine Fisheries Service
Southeast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR)


For more information, contact McLean Seward at or 910-796-7289
black sea bass
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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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