Updated March 13
Black sea bass, a saltwater fish taken commercially and recreationally in Massachusetts, have increased in number throughout southern New England waters and rattled the lobster industry with their wolfish appetites.
“They feed aggressively,” Rutgers University marine biologist Olaf Jensen said. “They’re not picky eaters. If it’s the right size and it’s alive, they’ll eat it.”
The young of New England’s iconic crustacean fall into the right size category. “Black sea bass love little lobsters,” Michael Armstrong, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said.
That’s of deep concern to Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, who says lobster traps are being pillaged by these fish. They are often hauled up with the bass inside the traps, alongside lobsters they couldn’t fit in their mouths, she said. Even more concerning to Casoni is their alleged habit of picking off undersize lobsters tossed overboard by lobstermen.
“When the lobstermen are discarding the shorts, the sea bass swallow them whole,” she said.
“Just seems like they’ll never make it to the bottom,” Menemsha lobsterman Wayne Iacono said.
Iacono said he’s seen as many as five bass in a lobster trap, and the larger of these can maim and dismember lobsters they can’t stuff in their mouths by tearing off legs and claws and sometimes the whole tail. “They’ve become so prolific,” he said.
Jensen said warmer ocean temperatures brought about by climate change are fueling black sea bass population growth in New England waters. Long associated with Mid-Atlantic fisheries, northern black sea bass stocks (stocks north of Cape Hatteras, N.C.) are regulated from states in that region via the the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) overall. The New England Fisheries Management Council “is not involved” in the management of northern black seas bass stocks, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson Jennifer Goebel. Furthermore, ASMFC member states like Massachusetts and its neighbors are regularly outvoted on issues like quotas, according to Armstrong, who said the fish have moved northward to the point that “a good portion of the entire stock is sitting in Massachusetts.”
Casoni wants to see quota increases in Massachusetts waters to mitigate the impact the fish have on lobsters.
Jensen said that may require structural changes to federal regulations currently in place — “figuring out some sort of political mechanisms from states that have quota but don’t have the fish to states that have fish but don’t have the quota,” he said.
However, Jensen also, said robust black sea bass stocks are indicative of the power of “sustainable management.” Years ago, he said, the black sea bass were overfished. Adjustments to the fisheries allowed the population to rebound, he said.
Like Massachusetts, Rhode Island is teeming with black sea bass. At certain times of the year, bass taken from Rhode Island waters are found with baby lobsters in their guts, said Jason McNamee, chief of Rhode Island’s Division of Marine Fisheries.
MacNamee’s research indicates black sea bass predation on young lobsters is concentrated in the spring, when fewer other food sources are available to the bass and when the bass and young lobsters cohabitat in stone reefs, wrecks, and other undersea structures. Later on, after bass mating season, and once other food sources like crab and squid are more bountiful, McNamee said, baby lobsters become less and less evident in bass guts.
McNamee called bass predation on shorts “a legitimate concern,” but knew of no studies that could verify such a phenomenon. He attested to black sea bass aggression from experience. Despite the obvious disparity in size, he said the fish have attempted to “run him off” when he’s been diving close to a submarine structure they’ve claimed as territory.
He concurred with Armstrong that New England has struggled to increase how many of these fish its commercial and recreational fishermen can harvest because New England is “routinely outvoted.”
Casoni said her association has embarked on a study with the University of Massachusetts to evaluate how Vineyard Wind’s wind farm will affect black sea bass and lobsters. She said the structures could create new habitat for the bass, increase their numbers, and harm lobster stocks.
“The structures might also create lobster habitat and have a good impact,” she said.
In addition to the structure study, Casoni said a plankton tow study will be performed to analyze larval lobsters in the water column, and a “ventless trap” study will be executed to “give us a baseline on the size distribution in the lease area” of young lobsters.
She described Vineyard Wind as a very accomodating partner in the studies, having financed them and having lent a lot of goodwill.
Vineyard Wind spokesman Scott Farmelant said the studies are meant to “advance the body of knowledge about offshore wind impacts on the marine habitat.”
Casoni said the effects of bass predation on the lobster stock is “kind of hard to quantify,” because no studies are available yet. However, she described the issue as “a great concern” to the members of her association.
Armstrong said black sea bass, previously very rare in Gloucester, have shown up there.
“Now they’re moving into the Gulf of Maine, slowly,” he said. “We don’t know what the ramifications are of that.”
Updated to revise regulatory information.