Recreational angler with a weakfish. Photo credit: John McMurray, www.nyflyfishing.com
Weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) occur along the Atlantic coast of North America from Nova Scotia to southeastern Florida, but are more common from New York to North Carolina. Warming of coastal waters in the spring prompts an inshore and northerly migration of adults from their offshore wintering grounds between Chesapeake Bay and Cape Lookout, North Carolina to nearshore sounds, bays, and estuaries. Spawning occurs shortly afterwards, peaking from April to June, with some geographical variation in timing. Females continuously produce eggs during the spawning season and release them over a period of time rather than once. In the fall, an offshore and southerly migration of adults coincides with declining water temperatures.
Feeding on microscopic animals, larval weakfish journey from spawning areas to nursery areas, located in deeper portions of coastal rivers, bays, sounds, and estuaries. They remain in these areas until October to December of their first year, after which the juveniles migrate to the coast. Growth in weakfish is especially rapid in the first year and they mature at a young age. Size at age-1 is variable but most fish are 10 to 11 inches long. As adults, weakfish are often found near the periphery of eelgrass beds, perhaps because weakfish feed primarily on shrimp, other crustaceans, and small fish that are found near these grass beds.
Weakfish have supported fisheries along the Atlantic coast since at least the 1800s. Recently, however, fishermen have had increasing difficulty landing weakfish. From 1950 to 1970, commercial landings fluctuated without trend, ranging from three to nine million pounds. The early 1970s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, with landings peaking at 36 million pounds in 1980. The commercial fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low of six million pounds in 1994. Following an increase in abundance due to management measures, commercial harvest increased slowly through 1998. Beginning in 1999, commercial landings began to decline again, and by 2011, were reduced to an historic low of less than 133,000 pounds. In 2014, landings increased slightly to 196,489 pounds. The primary commercial gears for weakfish are trawls and gillnets, although weakfish are also landed using pound nets and haul seines.
Recreational landings have followed a similar trend to that of commercial landings. After several harvests above 10 million pounds in the early 1980s, landings decreased to two million pounds by 1989, and hovered between one and two million pounds through the early 1990s. Harvest then increased to over four million pounds by the late 1990s, before exhibiting a decline like that in the commercial fishery. The 2011 recreational harvest was also at a historic low of below 27,081 pounds. Like the commercial fishery, recreational harvest slightly increased in 2014 to 77,171 pounds.
The last weakfish stock assessment was conducted and peer reviewed in 2009. The resulting stock status for weakfish is depleted, with overfishing not occurring. Between 1982 and 1990, annual spawning stock biomass (SSB), as of January 1, declined drastically from 113.1 million pounds to 17.6 million pounds, with high fishing mortality rates driving the decline. Implementation of management measures in the early to mid-1990s reduced fishing mortality and resulted in an increase in SSB to a peak of 62.1 million pounds in 1996. After a slight decline through 2000, the stock began another drastic decline to the time-series low of 11 million pounds in 2007. The recent decline in biomass is not attributed to fishing mortality, which has remained relatively low and stable. Rather, natural mortality has increased to be two to four times the level of fishing mortality in recent years.
Juvenile abundance surveys suggest that young-of-the-year weakfish continue to be in a productive pattern, although there is concern because these strong young-of-the-year indices do not translate into high adult biomass. Weakfish are currently undergoing a benchmark stock assessment which will be peer-reviewed in 2015.
In 1985, as a result of population declines and limited biological information, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission developed an Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Weakfish. Weakfish are currently managed under Amendment 4 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Weakfish and its subsequent addenda (Addendum I-IV). Addendum IV requires states to implement a one fish recreational creel limit, 100 pound commercial trip limit, 100 pound commercial bycatch limit during closed seasons, and 100 undersized fish per trip allowance for the finfish trawl fishery. The Addendum's measures are intended to reduce the level of harvest without creating a large amount of discards and poise the stock for recovery should natural mortality decrease in the future.