Black sea bass flesh is firm and lean, with a mild, delicate flavor. According to some buyers, black sea bass that are caught with hooks tend to be the best quality, followed by trapped fish. Make sure the uncooked flesh is sparkling white and translucent, not opaque. Black sea bass tends to only be frozen when the market is glutted or demand is low and because it is a hardy fish, it is also sold live.
Key sustainability sourcing notes based on average landings of black sea bass from 2016-2017 and using the most recent Seafood Watch assessment is as follows:
~35% of black sea bass landings meet a Seafood Watch "Best Choice (green)" rating (Pot/trap and handline-caught from the U.S. Atlantic with ~30% from North Carolina, ~25% from Massachusetts, and ~15% from Virginia)
~30% of black sea bass landings meet a Seafood Watch "Avoid (red)" rating (trawl-caught from the U.S. Atlantic with ~40% from New Jersey, ~30% from Virginia, and ~15% from North Carolina)
~35% of black sea bass landings are unrated / unknown (~25% from Rhode Island, ~20% from New Jersey, and ~10-15% from New York, Florida (Gulf) and Virginia)
Black sea bass landings in 2017 saw an increase of ~55% compared to 2016
Fresh Seasonal Availability
Recommended Servings per Month
Serving Size: 100g
Amount per serving
Like their name suggests, black sea bass are usually dark black; however, smaller individuals of the species tend to be a dusky brown color. Compared to other species, their scales are relatively large. Their dorsal fin is continuous and notched with 10 spines and usually has a series of white spots and bands on it. The belly is only slightly lighter in color than the sides. Black sea bass have large mouths and can grow up to two feet and weigh up to nine pounds. It is believed that black sea bass can live up to 20 years, but individuals older than nine years are considered rare.
Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites – meaning that they start life as females with some individuals switching sexes and becoming male later in life. This change occurs when the fish reaches maturity between nine and 13 inches long and two and five years old. Following this transition, males will either become the dominant male or a subordinate male. Dominant males tend to grow larger than subordinates and will turn bluer in color as well as develop a bright blue hump on their heads during spawning season. The southern stock begins spawning first and can start spawning as early February – with peak spawning occurring between March and May. Spawning events progress northward during the spring and summer with peak spawning for the northern stock occurring between May and June. During this time, dominant males will gather a group of females to mate with and will become territorial. Depending on their size, females can produce between 30,000 and 500,000 eggs during a single spawning season. Males tend to grow to larger sizes and live longer than females. The exact reason as to why some individuals remain female while others transition to males is unknown.
Black sea bass are opportunistic feeders and will prey upon crabs, shrimp, worms, small fish, clams, and whatever else is available. Little skate, spiny dogfish, dusky shark, spotted hake, and summer flounder all feed on black sea bass.
Black sea bass inhabit the Atlantic Coast of North America and range from the Gulf of Maine to the Florida Keys – concentrating in areas from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, Florida. A temperate reef fish, black sea bass prefer structured habitats such as reefs, wrecks, oyster beds, jetties, and pilings. There are two distinct stocks of black sea bass along the US Atlantic with overlapping ranges. The northern, Mid-Atlantic stock (north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina) migrates seasonally and moves southward into deeper offshore waters between 240 and 540 feet (73 and 165 meters) during the winter. The northern stock returns to inshore waters during the spring and summer and generally inhabits waters less than 120 feet (37 meters) during this time. The southern Atlantic stock (South of Cape Hatteras) does not conduct extensive migrations like their northern counterparts.
Science & Management
The Mid-Atlantic Research Set-Aside Program sets aside a small percentage of the black sea bass harvest each year in order to fund habitat research and surveys to inform future management decisions. Funds are generated through the sale of ‘set-aside’ fish sold by registered fisheries. Projects include gear research to minimize bycatch and research to supplement stock assessment data. As of the 2016-2017 grant year, no research projects have been proposed.
Research done in 2008 by NOAA Fisheries’ Milford Laboratory has shown that black sea bass can grow in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) from larvae to adults, eating commercial pellet feed. Scientists found that nutritional composition of the feed used is important, and different depending on the fish’s life stage after studying two separate cultures over four years. The bass reached the same optimal weight in less than two years as wild stocks do in three or more years. RAS temperature, salinity and alkalinity levels were also found to affect growth rates; however, future aquaculture research is needed focusing on understanding optimal culture temperatures, lighting conditions, reproductive physiology, and nutritional requirements at various life stages.
Black sea bass are divided into two stocks along the US Atlantic – a northern stock (north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina) and a southern stock (south of Cape Hatteras). The northern stock conducts annual offshore winter migrations between state waters (0-3 miles) and federal waters (3-200 miles) and regularly moves between the Mid-Atlantic states. As such, NOAA Fisheries, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cooperatively manage the northern stock under the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic are targeted using a variety of gears depending on the season and therefore, the location of the northern stock. When inshore, they are caught using pots and handlines and when offshore in the winter they are targeted using trawls.
Among the objectives outlined in the Summer Flounder, Scup, and Black Sea Bass FMP are to reduce fishing mortality to ensure the stock is not overfished, reduce fishing mortality on immature and spawning black sea bass, and to promote and enforce compatible regulations between the Mid-Atlantic states and among federal and state entities. Specific measures the plan addresses to reach these objectives are:
Annual catch limits. As of 2017 this was divided between recreational fishers (4.29 million lbs.) and commercial fishers (4.12 million lbs.) – with the annual commercial quota then being divided into state-by-state quotas;
Minimum size limits;
Minimum mesh sizes;
A performance review of the fishery to be conducted every five years;
A moratorium on new fishers entering the fishery; and,
Closed fishing seasons.
Historically, black sea bass have been overfished in the Mid-Atlantic; however, due to management measures addressed in the FMP, the stock was officially declared rebuilt in 2009. Given that black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites and can change their sex from female to male, there is still a degree of uncertainty as to how commercial exploitation may affect the stock as well as to the actual stock size. As of a 2017 stock assessment, the northern stock is not overfished nor subject to overfishing.
The southern black sea bass stock is managed by NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council under the South Atlantic Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Among management measures outlined in the FMP are:
Limited commercial permits;
Annual catch limits with the fishery closing when limits are projected to be met (if the catch limit is exceeded that amount is then deducted from next year’s limit);
Trip limits; and,
Minimum size limits.
Additionally, there are numerous gear restrictions in place throughout the South Atlantic. These include: trap limits, minimum mesh sizes (to reduce the catch of undersized fish), requirements that pots/traps have escape vents and panels, and requirements that traps be brought back to port and the end of each trip. To address adverse impacts the fishery may cause to benthic habitats, pots are only allowed north of Cape Canaveral, Florida and trawling is banned in the South Atlantic.
The southern black sea bass stock was overfished until 2013 when the stock was officially declared rebuilt. South Atlantic catch limits have been increased each subsequent year since the fishery has been rebuilt. According to a 2013 stock assessment, the southern stock is not overfished nor subject to overfishing. Black sea bass in the Gulf of Mexico are not subject to federal management.
Management of black sea bass is complicated as climate change continues to raise ocean temperatures resulting in the species shifting out of their historical ranges to cooler, northern waters. State quotas for black sea bass are based on historical abundances and historically, black sea bass have been most abundant off North Carolina (therefore the state has received the highest catch quota). As the range shifts northward, fishers in North Carolina are having to travel further north to catch black sea bass; while, at the same time, fishers in New England are catching more black sea bass than their historically smaller quotas allow them to legally land and sell. Future management measures will need to be flexible in addressing these changes while still being effective at maintaining and supporting the fishery.
Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they start as females and mature into males. They have high fecundity but they grow slowly. Black sea bass are divided into two fisheries, the Mid-Atlantic and the South Atlantic, with the line marked by Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. In 2000 the Mid-Atlantic stock was declared overfished. In 2005 scientists discovered overfishing was occurring in the South Atlantic. In recent years both populations have recovered and an early 2013 Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch report stated they were classified as not overfished.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Most black sea bass are caught by commercial fishermen using with pots and hook and line gear, which has a low to moderate effect on the seafloor. Some black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic is also caught using otter trawls, which have higher rates of habitat damage, particularly to live coral and reef habitats. For this reason, the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave the otter trawl for northern black sea bass a red ranking. Trawling has been banned in the South Atlantic for more than 20 years.
Black sea bass fisheries have gear requirements such as escape vents in pots to prevent undersized fish from being caught. Bycatch in pots is minor because the gear is not usually baited for black sea bass, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. In the Mid-Atlantic, otter trawls are nonselective so there is more unintended bycatch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reported that the Mid-Atlantic otter trawl fishery was shown to have a negative impact on loggerhead turtles, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In the Mid-Atlantic fishery, strict management measures such as minimum size limits, minimum mesh requirements for trawls, a moratorium on entry into the fishery, and closed seasons have helped black sea bass stocks recover from being overfished. The post-2005 rebuilding plan for the South Atlantic included limits on permits, minimum size limits, gear restrictions as well as rules that prohibited commercial fishing once the annual quota has been met. The Monterey Bay Aquarium called fishery management in both regions highly effective in its 2013 Seafood Watch report.