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New Jersey Scuba Diving

Oceanic Basses & Porgies

Fishes

Although they are both called basses, Stripers and Black Sea Bass are not closely related. Striped Bass are more closely related to ocean perches, while Black Sea Bass are related to tropical basslets and groupers. The Striped Bass is the largest member of the sea bass family, often called "temperate" or "true" bass to distinguish it from species such as largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass which are actually members of the sunfish family Centrarchidae. Porgies are much more highly compressed ( side-to-side ) than basses, and are not closely related.

Many, if not all, Sea Basses share the odd trait of changing sex from male to female ( protandry ) or female to male ( protogyny ), depending on the species. Oddly, Striped Bass undergo a sexual transformation that is the opposite of the Black Sea Bass. The reason lies in their different lifestyles. Black Sea Bass are bottom-dwellers, and the males are territorial. Bigger fish can claim better territories, so it is an advantage for a big individual to become a male. Stripers on the other hand are not territorial. In their case, bigger fish can produce more eggs, so it is advantageous for big Stripers to be females.

All these fishes all have sharp hard spines in the dorsal and anal fins, as a defense against predators. The spines make the fish much more difficult to swallow, or handle, as many a fisherman could tell you.


Black Sea Bass

Oceanic Basses & Porgies

Centropristis striata

Profile by Thomas Baum,
Senior Fisheries Biologist

Range:
Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, from northern Florida to Cape Cod, occasionally to Maine.

Size:
The average is less than 1 pound, up to 3 pounds and 9" to 20" long, with an occasional individual reaching 7 pounds; males are usually larger than females. Most females average 3 to 5 years old, the oldest reaching 8 years old, while males can live to 20 years, with 6- and 7-year-olds predominating. This seemingly odd difference in age between the sexes is due to a sex reversal explained below.


Only males sport these attractive colors; females are usually drab brown.

Food:
Black Sea Bass appear to feed by sight and are opportunistic omnivores ( taking advantage of whatever is available. ) Stomach analyses have shown that crustaceans, fish, mollusks and echinoderms ( starfish, sea urchins ) are part of their diet. Larger fish prefer crabs and fish; younger ones eat shrimp and various crustaceans.

Migration:
Black Sea Bass move inshore and north for the summer and offshore in the winter. The larger and older fish move offshore sooner and winter in deeper water than their younger cohorts.

Habitat:
During the warmer months when sea bass are in water depths less than 120 feet, they are attracted to hard bottom around rocks, wrecks and reefs. Small, juvenile Sea Bass inhabit deep holes and grass beds in coastal bays and shell bottoms in near-shore ocean waters.


I'm sure Jacques Cousteau would have had something interesting to say about this picture. The victim is a juvenile Black Sea Bass, displaying typical female coloration.

Spawning:
Females mature around 2 years and older. Black Sea Bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning that they start their lives out as females, then become males. This transformation of sexes occurs between 2 and 5 years of age ( 6-12 inches in length ), accounting for males being larger and older. Spawning occurs in May off the North Carolina coast, later in May and through June off New Jersey, the Long Island Sound and New England. The eggs ( spawned in open ocean ) are buoyant ( free floating ), non-adhesive and hatch in three days. Sea Bass are a member of the grouper family (Serranidae), and males are thought to be territorial. Older males develop a fatty hump on the back in front of the dorsal fin. Males can be further distinguished from females by their overall darker color and brilliant blue patches around the head; females are usually a light brown coloration.

Recreational and Commercial Importance:
During years of sea bass abundance, commercial gear is used to target them. The most popular type of gear used are fish pots, set close to reefs, wrecks and other known Sea Bass areas. Sea Bass are also caught in otter trawls on their offshore wintering grounds. They can be sold as whole fish or larger ones can be filleted.

This fish has become a staple to many party boat operators along the coast. Some target Sea Bass during bottom and reef fishing trips, along with tautog. In 1991, recreational anglers caught over 5 million Sea Bass in New Jersey.

Besides being targeted by private and party boats on reefs, rocks and other known locations, Sea Bass are commonly caught while fishing for other species such as summer flounder, weakfish, bluefish or tautog. Juvenile Sea Bass from 1 to 6 inches are often caught in the back bays along the New Jersey coast. A standard deep water rig consists of a swivel, enough weight to hold bottom and an 18-inch leader with 2/0 to 5/0 hooks ( 2 to 3 hooks per rig ). Jigging with diamond jigs is also used. Cut squid and clams are the most widely used bait, while worms or mussels can also be used. Sea Bass tend to be caught more readily when there is a good current. They are good fighters for their size and if given the opportunity, will head for holes or crevices in the rocks or bottom debris when hooked. Therefore, a conventional boat rod and reel with 20-pound test monofilament is advisable.

Acknowledgements and References:
Bigelow and Schroeder (1953)
Hildebrand and Schroeder (1972)
Kendall (1977)

This article first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 1997 Edition

See Catch Restrictions for catch limits and a brief closed season on these fish in the summer during their mating season.


download: US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile


download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Similar to the Black Sea Bass, but far less common, is the attractively colored Scamp (right) which might at first be mistaken for an errant tropical, but is in fact a native fish. Note the ragged bristly tail of the adult.


Striped Bass

Oceanic Basses & Porgies

Morone saxatilis

Profile by Thomas Baum,
Senior Fisheries Biologist

Common Name:
Striped Bass, also called Rockfish, Rock, Striper, and Linesider


Range:
Striped bass occur naturally along the Atlantic coast from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to the St. John's river, Florida, and in some river systems along the Gulf of Mexico from western Florida to Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. It is a coastal fish, inhabiting near-shore ocean waters as well as adjacent bays, sounds and tidal rivers. Some naturally reproducing stocks have been established in freshwater rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

Striped bass were introduced very successfully to the Pacific Coast in the late 1800's. Yearling striped bass were seined from the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers near Red Bank, New Jersey in 1879 and again in 1881, and transported by train across the continent to San Francisco Bay. Water in the holding containers had to be replenished along the way and agitated by hand to keep the young fish alive. The transported fish adapted so well, that in 1899 the net catch of striped bass for the Pacific Coast was 1.2 million pounds. Striped bass now cover a major portion of the West Coast from San Diego California to as far north as the Columbia River in Washington

Size:
Females generally grow larger than males and the growth rate slows as the fish get older. Striped bass are relatively long lived, some fish have been determined to be at least 29 years old. The overall record is a 125-pound fish caught in 1891 by a commercial fisherman in North Carolina. Albert McReynoids caught the World Record Striped Bass for rod and reel in 1982, from a jetty in Atlantic City, NJ. The fish weighed 78 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 53 inches in length and had a 34 inch girth.

Food & Feeding:
Striped bass feed on a variety of fish and invertebrates. They can be selective feeders, meaning that they will choose one type of food over another, ignoring other possible food sources that may be available. It seems also that when prey is plentiful, bass are likely to gorge themselves, then cease feeding in order to digest, then gorge again. In general, they are more active at night, feeding on other nocturnal creatures.

Migration:
Most striped bass along the Atlantic coast are involved in two types of migration: an upriver spawning migration from late winter to early spring, and coastal migrations that are apparently not associated with spawning activity. Within river systems striped bass spend the major part of the year in the lower estuaries, moving upstream in the spring to spawn and back downstream in the summer. Large numbers of fish 2 years old and older leave the bays and move northward along the coast, regularly traveling as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Coastal migrations may be quite extensive; striped bass tagged in Chesapeake Bay have been recaptured in the Bay of Fundy. These fish then move southward in the fall and return to the Chesapeake Bay or overwinter in estuaries or near-shore ocean waters along the New Jersey coast or offshore of North Carolina and Virginia.

Habitat:
Atlantic coast migratory striped bass use coastal rivers as spawning sites. The juvenile fish utilize the rivers and the lower portions of the estuaries as nursery areas. Adult habitats include coastal rivers and the near-shore ocean. These habitats are distributed along the coast from Maine through North Carolina. Bass are found along sandy beaches, in shallow bays, along rocky stretches, over and among submerged or partially submerged rocks, and at the mouths of estuaries, the precise situations that they occupy being governed by the availability of food.

Spawning:
The months of April, May and June span the time of nearly all spawning activities for striped bass in the mid Atlantic region. Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries constitute the principal spawning area for striped bass along the Atlantic coast. Other significant spawning areas are the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Striped bass are anadromous fish, meaning they live in salt water and return once a year to fresh or nearly fresh water to spawn. The spawning run upriver begins when water temperatures begin to rise in late April or early May. The female deposits her semi-buoyant eggs, greenish in color, near the surface of the water while several males discharge milky white clouds of milt. Peak spawning activity occurs when the water temperature is between 57 and 66°F. The eggs, if fertilized, hatch after 36 to 42 hours under normal conditions. This is the most crucial period for young. stripers. The water current must be strong enough to keep the eggs and young from settling to the river bottom, where silt would smother them. This period lasts several days and the correct amount of clean, flowing water is essential. A 6-year old, 7 pound female striper produces approximately 500,000 eggs; a 17-year old, 50 pound bass can produce 3 million eggs.

Importance:
Striped bass have been one of the most important fisheries on the Atlantic coast for centuries. At one time striped bass were so plentiful that they were used to fertilize fields. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony forbid their use as fertilizer. The continent's first public school was financed in 1669 by profits from the sale of striped bass. Congress formed the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 1942 to coordinate interstate management of the highly migratory striped bass in state waters along the East Coast. In 1948, New Jersey enacted one of the first creel (bag) limits for striped bass of ten fish per day. During the 1980's, a coast-wide moratorium was implemented as a result of drastically low numbers and poor recruitment of striped bass. The moratorium, and proper management of the striped bass resource has added to the restoration of the Atlantic Coastal striped bass population. A limited fishery was allowed in 1990, and regulations since ha been adjusted annually according to the population size of the coastal stock. The Atlantic coast striped bass harvest in 1997 was approximately 22 million pounds, accounting for about 2.5 million fish.

Fishing Techniques:
There are several ways anglers fish for striped bass. Bait and artificial lures are popular, and people fish from the surf, jetties and boats ( private, charter and party. ) Besides ocean fishing, rivers, bays and inlets are also popular locations. Anglers utilize herring, menhaden, spot, eels and even snapper bluefish for bait or to live-line for striped bass. Other baits include squid, clam, blood an sand worms, mullet, crabs and grass shrimp. Some anglers prefer to try their luck at night, or just before and after the change of the tide. Boat anglers sometime drift, or may anchor close to structures such as bridges. There are numerous artificial lures that anglers use, and even fly-fishermen target striped bass. There are some who fish for striped bass all year long, but fall is a popular time with many anglers, and interest has grown in the spring fishery for striped bass.

Acknowledgements and References:

This article first appeared in New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest - 1999 Marine Issue

See Catch Restrictions for catch limits. | Health Advisories


download: US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile


download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine


Scup (Porgy)

Oceanic Basses & Porgies

Stentotomus chrysops

Profile by Stacey Reap

Range:
Scup have been found along the Atlantic coast from Bay of Fundy and Sable Island Bank, Canada, to as far south as Florida; however, the greatest concentrations can be found from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Depending upon the season, they can be found from coastal waters and estuaries out to depths of approximately 650 ft. along the outer continental shelf. A separate population of scup, referred to as the "southern porgy" or S. aculeatus, is referenced in several South Atlantic Bight studies; however, there is no official differentiation made between the two populations by the American Fisheries Society.

Size:
Scup of both sexes are sexually mature by age 3, at an average length of 8.3 in. Historically, scup have been reported at lengths of 18 in. and up to 4 lbs and 20 years of age, but the current Middle Atlantic Bight population is composed mostly of younger fish, few older than 7 and larger than 13 in.

Food & Feeding:
Juvenile scup feed on small organisms, such as polychaete worms, amphipods, small crustaceans and mollusks, as well as fish eggs and larvae. While copepods and mysids are more important to early juveniles, the diet of larger juveniles is more dependent upon bivalve mollusks, such as razor clams and blue mussels. The scup diet typically consists of a mix of reef and sandy-bottom prey, with adult fish having broad culinary tastes ranging from small crustacea, squid and fish to polychaetes, mollusks, vegetable detritus, hydroids and sand dollars. With two rows of strong molars in their jaws, scup are able to crush hard-shelled prey.

Migration:
Scup in the Middle Atlantic Bight demonstrate a pronounced seasonal migration from summer inshore grounds to offshore wintering areas along the outer continental shelf. They also show movement from north to south, although few fish tagged in the New England/New York vicinity in the summer are caught south of Cape Hatteras. As coastal water temperatures drop below 7.5°C (45°F) in September, scup begin migrating in schools of similarly sized fish. Schools from the Mid-Atlantic arrive offshore in December, wintering in deep water as far south as North Carolina, their distribution dependant upon water temperature. Bottom water with a temperature of 7.3°C (45°F) is their lower preferred limit, with the location of this favored isotherm influenced by the Gulf Stream. The migratory patterns of the scup population south of Cape Hatteras are unclear, although the fish may move offshore during the coldest weather.


During the day, Scup are light colored.

Spawning:
Scup travel inshore to spawn once a year when the water warms past 10°C (50°F), which occurs May through June in New York and New Jersey bays. Spawning continues in July along coastal Rhode Island and extends through August, when water temperatures are approximately 24°C (75°F). Spawning fish are found in southern Massachusetts shoal waters until late June, after which they move to deeper waters. Eggs are fertilized externally, with scup between 17.5 cm (6.9 in.) and 23 cm (9 in.) averaging about 7,000 eggs per female.

Habitat:
Although they are occasionally seen at the surface, scup are bottom-dwelling fish. With a diverse benthic diet and using schooling as a defense strategy, scup do not require structure for habitat, but they can benefit from it. As a result, they are commonly found associated with hard-substrate environments, such as mussel beds, artificial reefs, rocky outcroppings and wrecks, but are also found in areas with soft, sandy bottom. Once scup travel offshore to winter in deeper waters, their specific habitat preferences become unclear. Although they remain demersal, they have been found dwelling in a variety of offshore habitats.

Recreational and Commercial Importance:
Scup are important to both recreational and commercial fishermen in New Jersey, but, as a result of overfishing and habitat loss, scup catches have become less abundant. The 1998 total combined New Jersey commercial and recreational landings of just over 5 million pounds were the lowest in the 1981-1999 time frame, with 1999 showing only a slight increase to 5.2 million pounds. Commercial landings in 1997 were the lowest since 1930, at only 7% of the 1960 peak landings of 48.5 million pounds. Recreational catches have also declined. In the early 1950's, scup comprised 33 to 49 percent of the state's party boat catch; the total recreational catch amounted to 2 million pounds. In contrast, in 2000, New Jersey anglers kept only 335,000 scup, probably less than 200,000 pounds. The principal commercial fishing gear for scup is the otter trawl.

The fishery is now managed under the Summer Flounder, Scup and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan, which establishes annual gear regulations and quotas for commercial operations, as well as recreational size and possession limits. Recreational fishermen accounted for 20-50% of the total annual coast-wide catch from 1985-1999, taking 1.8 million pounds of scup in 1999. In 2001, the New Jersey recreational regulations allowed for a possession limit of 50 fish over 9 in., with a season running July 4 through Dec. 31. Under these regulations, the scup catch increased in 2001 to 585,000 fish.

Recreational anglers use small hooks on top and bottom rigs to catch scup. The most commonly used baits are squid and clam. Party boats account for the majority of the recreational scup catch.


At night they adopt a darker pattern, with vertical bars, usually more pronounced than this.

Good News for Anglers:
Management strategies, including recreational size limits and commercial quotas, are paying off. Over the next few years, more and bigger scup will appear on NJ reefs.

References:
Range, Steimle, et al. (1997), Morse (1978); size, Steimle, et al. (1997), Terceiro (2001); feeding, Steimle et at. (1997), Morse (1978), Murdy, et al. (1997); migration, habitat and spawning, Steimle, et al. (1997); fishery, Terceiro (2001), Beal et al. (2000); recreational catches, Younger and Zamos (1955), Figley et al. (2001).

This article first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 2002 edition

See Catch Restrictions for catch limits.


download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Sheepshead (right) is similar, but much larger, with bold vertical stripes.



Sheepshead


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I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.

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