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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Sheepshead

Marine Fisheries

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SHEEPSHEAD, Archosargus probatocephalus

8-point rule

Sheepshead

Life History

Sheepshead (Archosargus protobatocephalus) are a relatively large and long-lived member of the porgy family that ranges from Nova Scotia, Canada to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico south to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. They are generally found year-round in North Carolina's coastal waters ranging from inshore brackish waters to offshore rocky bottom. Juveniles are associated with shallow vegetated habitat as well as hard structures that offer protection. As sheepshead grow larger, they move to more typical adult habitat including oyster reefs, rocks, pilings, jetties, piers and wrecks. Migration patterns based on mark recapture studies have not documented large scale north-south movements. Movement instead tends to be towards inlets during the fall and winter when adult sheepshead migrate to ocean waters to spawn.

Sheepshead are omnivores, meaning they eat plant material as well as animals (barnacles, crabs, oysters). Sheepshead grow quickly up to age 6, and then their growth slows. After their first year, sheepshead average 10 inches, at which less than 50 percent of the individuals are sexually mature. Most sheepshead mature at age 2 (12 inches) and all sheepshead are mature by ages 3 to 5 (14 inches). In North Carolina, sheepshead commonly attain a length of 20 to 25 inches with weights ranging from 5 to 15 pounds. The maximum reported age in North Carolina is 27 years.

Fisheries

Sheepshead are primarily caught as bycatch in several of North Carolina's commercial fisheries (gill nets, pound nets, haul seines). A targeted spear fishery has developed in the past five years, and the gig fishery has also become more popular in this time. Estuarine gill nets and pound nets have made up the majority of the landings in the past 10 years; in 2016, greater than 70 percent of sheepshead were landed using these gears—an additional 16 percent were landed by the gig and spear fisheries, combined. Commercial landings have fluctuated over the past 10 years, with the highest landings occurring in 2013 and 2014 (Figure 1). The landings for the past two years have been below the 10 year average (125,970 pounds). In 2015, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission implemented new regulations that included size and trip limits.

Figure 1

Sheepshead are a highly sought after recreational fish, whose popularity has increased in the past 10 years. Recreationally, sheepshead are primarily harvested using hook and line gear, but the species is becoming a favorite of spear fishermen. Recreational landings have declined since 2007; however, harvest peaked in 2013 (Figure 2). Landings were below the 10 year average (130,195 fish and 319,999 pounds) from 2014 to 2016. In 2016, the total number of released fish was higher than the number of sheepshead harvested (Figure 2). In 2015, in addition to the commercial regulations, bag and size limits for the recreational fishery were implemented. Citations for sheepshead weighing over 8 pounds were given to 163 anglers in 2016.

Figure 2

Management

Sheepshead was initially managed as part the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan. In April 2012, they were officially removed from the council's snapper-grouper management complex through the Comprehensive Annual Catch Limit Amendment (Amendment 25). As a result, North Carolina's proclamation authority for the management of the species was invalidated. In November 2012, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission requested a rule be developed for sheepshead, and in November 2013 the rule was approved that specifies the director's proclamation authority to set harvest limits. In 2015, the commission implemented new regulations that included size, bag, and trip limits to prevent too many fish from being harvested, as well as to allow a greater number of fish to spawn before being harvested. There currently is no state or federal fishery management plan for sheepshead.

Stock Status Overview

The status of sheepshead is considered "unknown." North Carolina defines stocks as being unknown when there is insufficient data available to determine such information as trends in effort, age distribution and settlement. The division is collecting data to estimate trends in abundance of sheepshead. North Carolina commercial landings of sheepshead have fluctuated over the years. However, recreational landings, despite the increase in popularity of the fish, have begun to exhibit an overall decreasing trend. The Pamlico Sound Independent Gill Net survey is used as an index of abundance for sheepshead and provides some measure of stock abundance for sheepshead in the Pamlico Sound. The catch per unit effort has fluctuated over the 10 year time series, peaking in 2009 and 2014 (Figure 3). In 2016, the catch per unit effort was 9 percent below the time series average (0.22 sheepshead per set).

Figure 3

Research Needs

Research needs include the development of a tagging program to determine migration patterns, as well as juvenile and adult abundance indices; continuation of the monitoring of recreational and commercial catches; updating the maturity schedule; collection of age and sex information from fisheries; and conducting spawning area surveys.

Links

Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Contacts

For more information,
contact Anne Markwith at Anne.Markwith@ncdenr.gov
or 910-796-7292
Sheepshead
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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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