Young boy with tautog. Photo credit: Paul Caruso, MA DMF.
A member of the wrasse (Labridae) family, tautog (Tautoga onitis) is a stout fish with an arched head and broad tail. Juveniles are greenish in color and become darker with age. Fishermen have given tautog the nickname "blackfish" due to its dark mottled sides that are either dull black, blackish green, or blackish blue. Anglers also call tautog "white chin" because this coloring pattern is commonly found on large males. Tautog are slow growing and can live 35 to 40 years. Males and females are sexually mature at three to four years, but studies have shown larger females produce significantly more (and potentially higher quality) eggs than smaller females.
Tautog are distributed along the Northeast Atlantic coast, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, with the greatest abundances occurring in the US between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bay. North of Cape Cod, the species generally remains close to shore in waters less than 60 feet. South of Cape Cod, they inhabit waters 40 miles offshore at depths of up to 120 feet. During spring, as water temperatures approach 48° F, tautog migrate inshore to spawn in estuaries and nearshore marine waters. They remain inshore throughout the summer, then move to deeper (80 - 150 feet) offshore wintering areas as fall approaches and water temperatures drop below 52° F. Toward the southern end of their range, some adults may remain offshore throughout the year.
Throughout their life, tautog aggregate around structured habitats. Shallow, vegetated estuaries and inshore areas serve as juvenile nurseries, while larger juveniles cohabitate with adults in deeper offshore waters. North of Long Island, tautog are generally found around rocks and boulders. Toward the southern end of their range, tautog often inhabit wrecks, jetties, natural and artificial reefs, and shellfish beds. They are also found near the mouths of estuaries and other inlets. Adults stay close to their preferred home site and, although they may move away during the day to feed, they return to the same general locations at night where they become dormant and may actually sleep. This aggregation around structure makes tautog easy to catch, even when biomass levels are low. The easy catchability and slow growth rate make tautog highly susceptible to overfishing and slow to rebuild.
Tautog can be found in waters off of Massachusetts to Virginia, with the majority of landings occurring in state waters between Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Bay. While tautog are targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen, approximately 90% of the harvest is recreational. Total removals have declined in all regions across the coast.
Coastwide recreational harvest peaked in 1986 at over 8.4 million fish (21.6 million pounds) but has since declined to approximately 1.1 million fish (3.4 million pounds) in 2018. The proportion of harvest from each region has fluctuated somewhat over the years, with harvest in Delaware/Maryland/Virginia declining in recent years and growing in Long Island Sound. The proportion of tautog released alive by recreational fisheries has increased over time, from 10-20% in the 1980s to 90% in 2018. Tautog handle being released alive relatively well; the percent of fish that die as a result of being caught and released is only 2.5%, based on scientific studies. In 2018, 9.6 million tautog were released alive, of which 239,250 were estimated to have died, or 18% of total recreational removals (harvest plus dead discards).
Commercial harvest peaked in the late 1980s at 1.2 million pounds and declined to approximately 300,000 pounds in 2018. Most tautog are landed in the spring and fall, although some Mid-Atlantic fishermen pursue tautog year-round, and there is an active fishery off of the Virginia coast in the winter. Tautog are a popular fish for the live markets, due to their ability to survive handling and tank conditions.
While tautog have been managed on a coastwide basis from Massachusetts through Virginia, tagging data suggest strong site fidelity across years with limited north-south movement and some seasonal inshore-offshore migrations. In the northern part of their range, adult tautog move from offshore wintering grounds in the spring to nearshore spawning and feeding areas, where they remain until late fall when the reverse migration occurs as water temperatures drop. Populations in the southern region may undergo shorter distance seasonal migrations, while in the southern-most part of the range they may not undergo seasonal migrations at all.
Based on this information, the 2015 benchmark stock assessment was conducted at a regional level, using life history information, tagging data, fishery characteristics and data availability considerations to split the coastwide population into three regions (Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Connecticut – New Jersey, Delaware/Maryland/Virginia). Each region was assessed independently using the statistical catch-at-age model. All three regions were found to be overfished, with overfishing occurring in the northern region.
In 2016, two new regional stocks were assessed and peer-reviewed. While the three-region approach of the 2014 benchmark stock assessment was still applicable, there was interest in assessing and managing Long Island Sound as a discrete area. This regional assessment analyzes two additional regions (Long Island Sound and New Jersey-New York Bight) to comprise a four-region management scenario. The two regions were found to be overfished and experiencing overfishing. Following this analysis, all regions in the four region management scenario (Massachusetts-Rhode Island, Long Island Sound, New Jersey-New York Bight, and Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) were updated with landings and index data through 2015 (the accompanying table provides stock status by region when compared to the proposed reference points). The Massachusetts-Rhode Island region was found to be not overfished and overfishing was not occurring. The Long Island Sound and the New Jersey-New York Bight region were both found to be overfished and experiencing overfishing. The Delaware-Maryland-Virginia region was found to be overfished, but overfishing was not occurring. Short-term projections to determine the level of harvest required to have a 50% and 70% probability of achieving the fishing mortality target for each region, as well as the probability of being at or above the SSB threshold, by 2020 were also conducted in order to development management strategies to end overfishing for these stocks.
Tautog is managed under Amendment 1 to the Fishery Management Plan for Tautog (October 2017). Based on the results of the 2015 Benchmark Stock Assessment and the 2016 Regional Stock Assessment, Amendment 1 delineates the stock into four regions due to differences in biology and fishery characteristics, and limited coastwide movement: Massachusetts–Rhode Island, Long Island Sound, New Jersey–New York Bight, and Delaware–Maryland–Virginia.
Amendment 1 includes new regional biological reference points, fishing mortality targets, and stock rebuilding schedules. Each region will implement measures to achieve the regional fishing mortality target with at least a 50% probability. Commercial and recreational management measures are determined individually by the four management regions in response to the 2016 Stock Assessment Update. If the current fishing mortality exceeds the regional threshold, the Board must initiate corrective action within one year.
Additionally, Amendment 1 addresses the pervasive issue of illegal harvest of undersized and unreported tautog by establishing a commercial harvest tagging program. Under the tagging program, all states within the management unit will require commercially permitted harvesters to tag all commercial caught tautog at the time of harvest or prior to offloading. Tautog must be landed in the state that is identified on the tag. The selected tags are non-lethal and will be applied to fish intended for both live and fresh markets. All states will implement the tagging program in 2020.