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Getting to Know Black Seabass

Descending to a depth of about 70-feet on an offshore shipwreck, we spotted a male black seabass. A blue-green color outlined his eyes and a small hump (= nuchal hump) rose from just behind the top of his head. It was typical of a male black seabass getting ready to spawn. As we approached the fish at a distance of just a couple of arm-lengths, he ducked into the recesses of the wreck. We‘d lost our opportunity to photograph him!Black seabass range from the Gulf of Maine to northeastern Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Spawning occurs offshore, during the spring through early fall. During the spawning season, a female can release 30,000 to 500,000 buoyant eggs. The eggs hatch in about 75 hours, releasing their tiny larvae. At first, the newly hatched remain offshore, near the surface. But as they grow to about a half-inch, they go to the bottom and gradually make their way toward the shore. Once there, they take up residence on shell bottoms, eelgrass beds, wharves or jetties.The majority of black seabass begin their lives as females and later change into a male. Sex switching also occurs in tropical fish species such as parrotfishes and wrasses. Some crustaceans also change sex as part of their normal life cycle. Eastern oysters begin their lives as males, changing gender around their first birthday. Precisely why a female black seabass changes sex or what triggers it, is not known. It has been suggested that in certain species, the change from female to male may be of advantage when a female’s reproductive capacity slows with age. The maximum life span for females can be 8 years; males live up to 12 years.Adults migrate offshore as the bottom temperatures dip to about 450F. They return to the coast as those same temperatures rise above that mark. Near shore, they are usually found associated with rock piles, piers, pilings, bridge abutments, artificial reefs, shipwrecks or other underwater structures. Black seabass generally remain close to their shelter during the day and head out to feed on the open bottom from dusk to dawn. They share many of these underwater structures with tautogs (blackfish), spotted and red hakes, ocean pouts, sea robins and pinfish.Black seabass are bottom feeders, dining on shrimps, crabs, juvenile lobsters, squids, clams and small fishes. Their predators include “striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, bignose sharks and dusky sharks.”Recreational fishing for black seabass generally begins in May and lasts until the end of summer and beyond. During that time, they tend to be found near shore, on underwater structures to a depth of about 120 feet. The largest of this species tend to be caught in deeper water. Typically, squids, shrimps, clams and green crabs are the most effective bait. Jigs and small bucktails tipped with squid or artificially scented soft bait also work. When bottom fishing, using a bank sinker with its tapered shape, helps prevent snagging on most underwater structures. When caught online using light tackle, the fish put on a great fight. However, be careful when handling your catch. Their dorsal (back) fin has very sharp spines as does the flap covering and protecting its gills.On average, most recreationally caught black seabass weigh about 1.5 pounds. Some do grow to about 8 pounds, measuring more than 24 inches in length. The world record for this species is 10 lb, 4 oz. It was caught off Virginia Beach, Virginia, in January 2000. Published by the Atlantic Coastal Management, each Atlantic state, from Maine to Florida sets the open season, maximum fish caught and minimum size. For instance, Connecticut’s open season for black seabass runs from May 19 to the end of December. The state’s minimum size is 15 inches and the possession limit is 5 fish. Check with your own state for these regulations.Inshore, commercial fishermen use fish pots and handlines to catch black seabass. During the colder months, when the species is found offshore, they use trawls to capture summer flounder, scup, black seabass and squid. The minimum commercial fishing length for black seabass is 11 inches in total length.Black seabass are good eating! Its taste is similar to that of cod, grouper, haddock and halibut. The black seabass flesh is firm with a mild and delicate flavor. Its uncooked flesh should be sparkling white and translucent. It can be grilled, broiled or pan-seared. Some even recommend deep frying it with batter, giving it a taste similar to sea trout.

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