The scup is a migratory, schooling member of the porgy family, which is most frequently caught in the waters between Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The center of abundance is located off eastern New York.
Scup are relatively small, laterally compressed fish with a silhouette not too different from that of a freshwater sunfish. Most of the scup caught by anglers weigh less than three pounds, although they can grow to twice that size.
They support important commercial and recreational fisheries, particularly off New York and southern New England. Records of the commercial scup fishery date back to the early 1800s. While scup make good table fare, the fish were so abundant that they were probably also used to fertilize New England’s fields, as the name “porgy,” came from the native American moniker for “fertilizer.”
Scup Habitat and Biology
While scup tend to favor hard bottom, likely because there are more things for them to eat, they are not a structure-dependent fish like black sea bass or tautog. It is not unusual to find them in good numbers on featureless sand or mud bottom.
What do scup eat? Just about everything. Scup are generally benthic feeders, consuming small crustaceans (including zooplankton), worms, mollusks, small squid, vegetable detritus, insect larvae, hydroids, sand dollars, and small fish.
Yet, to some anglers, scup (of legal size) are best known as striped bass bait. Big striped bass and bluefish can often be found foraging on scup concentrations. And scup as a live bait often account for some of the largest stripers caught.
Scup abundance is often tied to water temperature. Generally, you won’t find them in water temps under 45 degrees, but they are most frequent in water temperatures from 55 to 77 degrees.
Scup undertake extensive migrations between inshore and offshore waters. They will be inshore in coastal and estuary waters during the spring and summer. In the fall and winter, they migrate offshore and to the south, and are generally abundant in the outer continental shelf waters between southern New Jersey and Cape Hatteras.
When water temperatures begin to rise in spring and summer, scup migrate to more northerly, inshore waters to spawn. Spawning occurs once annually over weedy or sandy areas, mostly off of southern New England. Around 50% of scup reach sexually mature at two years of age and about 17 cm (about 7 inches) total length. Nearly all scup older than three years are of reproductive age.
Spawning takes place from May through August and usually peaks in June and July. Large fish arrive to the spawning grounds first, followed by successive waves of smaller individuals, suggesting that scup school by size.
Larval scup are pelagic and are found in coastal waters during warmer months. Juvenile scup use a variety of coastal habitats and can dominate the overall fish population in large estuarine areas during the summer.
While scup generally reach a maximum age of around 14 years, they have been known to live as long as 20 years. However few scup older than age 7 are caught in the Mid-Atlantic.
Like summer flounder and black sea bass, scup is jointly managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), who work cooperatively to develop fishery regulations.
Such cooperative management was developed because a significant portion of the catch is taken from both state waters (0-3 miles offshore) and federal waters (3-200 miles offshore, also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ).
The Council and Commission work in conjunction with the NOAA Fisheries, which serves as the federal implementation and enforcement entity. The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) recommends annual Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) levels for scup, which are then approved by the Council and Commission and submitted to NOAA Fisheries for final approval and implementation.
The management unit for scup includes U.S. waters from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to the U.S.-Canadian border.
The Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for scup has been in place since 1996, when they were incorporated into the Summer Flounder FMP through Amendment 8 to that plan.
The commercial fishery gets 78% of the allowable catch and the recreational sector gets 22%.
Just four states, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, account for well over 90% of all recreational scup landings. Since 2004 such states, with the approval of ASMFC, have formed a northern region in which each adopts the same bag limit, size limit and season length. Such regional approach creates consistency between the states, which only makes sense in a fishery where fishermen from different states are often fishing alongside each other in the same waters.
Scup Stock Status
In 2005 scup was designated as overfished, thus triggering the establishment of a rebuilding strategy under Federal Fishery Management Law. A ten-year rebuilding plan was implemented in 2007 with Amendment 14 to the Fishery Management Plan.
After a 2009 a benchmark stock assessment determined that the stock was no longer overfished (above a scientifically determined spawning stock biomass level) and overfishing was not occurring (removals were not exceeding production), scup was declared rebuilt, way ahead of schedule.
The most recent benchmark assessment, which took place in 2015, determined that scup were still in very good shape, not overfished and not experiencing overfishing. Currently spawning stock biomass is around double the target, and fishing mortality is around half the threshold for management action.
Scup Commercial Fishery
Scup do not have a particularly high market value, perhaps because they are a relatively bony critter and fillets, even on the larger ones, are not very substantial. They are, however, quite good when eaten whole off the bone. Still, the commercial fishermen sell scup from $.55 a pound to $1.50 on the higher end.
Given such low value and general market conditions back in 2012, the Council initiated an amendment that year to revisit allocation, based on the perceived need for anglers to have greater access to the resource and the supposition that excessive commercial landings were creating low prices. Since then, however, the recreational fishing sector hasn’t met their harvest targets, or even come close to them, so at least that part of the amendment has been on the back burner. Another part of the amendment, which addresses seasonal allocations amongst commercial participants, continues to move forward.
The commercial scup fishery operates year-round, taking place mostly in federal waters during the winter months and mostly in state waters during the summer. It is primarily prosecuted with bottom “otter trawls.” In 2015, about 98% of the scup caught by federal commercial fishing permit holders were caught with bottom otter trawls. All other gear types each accounted for less than 1% of the commercial scup catch in 2015.
A “moratorium permit” (aka limited access) is required to fish for scup. Moratorium permits became a requirement in the commercial scup fishery after Amendment 8 established a limited-entry system. In 2015, 650 vessels held moratorium permits for scup.
A coast-wide commercial quota is allocated between three quota periods: winter I, summer, and winter II. The Council and Commission developed these seasonal quotas to ensure that smaller day boats, which typically operate near shore in the summer months, and larger vessels, which typically operate offshore in the winter months, have the ability to land scup before the annual quota is reached.
Gear Restricted Areas (GRAs)
Two fairly large “Gear Restricted Areas” covering a vast area of the continental shelf from Montauk down to Delmarva, were put in place in 2000. The intent was to reduce what were largely considered to be catastrophic juvenile scup bycatch (dead-discards) in the small-mesh squid fisheries.
Trawlers currently cannot fish for longfin squid, black sea bass, or silver hake in the Northern GRA from November 1 – December 31 and in the Southern GRA from January 1 – March 15 unless they use mesh that is at least 5 inches in diameter. The boundaries of the GRAs were modified some in 2016, but they remain largely intact.
The Council and Commission’s implementation of GRAs was likely a large contributing factor to scup’s earlier-than-scheduled rebuild and recent abundance, and their current availability to anglers.
Scup Recreational Fishery
The recreational scup fishery is characterized by huge bag limits. Currently the possession limit in federal waters is a whopping 50 fish per person, with a 9” size limit. Some argue that such high bag limits create a de-facto illegal commercial fishery, as it’s a lot of fish to take home merely for personal consumption.
Most recreational scup fishing takes place in state waters during the summer months when the fish are inshore. Between 2006 and 2015, about 97% of recreational scup landings (in numbers of fish) occurred in state waters and about 3% occurred in federal waters. Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island accounted for 99.2% of recreational scup harvest in 2015.