Weakfish

Weakfish may be the most beautiful fish of the mid-Atlantic coast. They have a long, slender body topped by a dark, greenish back that quickly fades to bright silver sides overwashed with lavender tones. The fins, particularly in larger individuals, are yellow, giving the overall impression of a fish the color of sunrise.

The weakfish’s technical name is Cynoscion regalis; “Cynoscion” can be translated as “dog-toothed,” a reference to the two fangs that appear at the front of the weakfish’s upper jaw (although, for some reason, most weakfish seem to lose one of those fangs, giving their open mouths an asymmetrical appearance).

They belong to the family Sciaenidae, a group that includes fish commonly known as “drum” and “croakers” for the sounds that they make by vibrating specialized muscles against their swim bladder, which acts a resonating chamber. It is a characteristic shared by weakfish, which frequently make a distinct croaking sound after being brought into the boat.

Weakfish can reach a maximum size of about 20 pounds, making them the largest of four species of Cynoscion found on the East Coast.

Although “weakfish” is the species’ generally accepted name, they are sometimes referred to as “northern weakfish,” to distinguish them from related species found along the southern mid-Atlantic, south Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In New England, they are traditionally called “squeteague,” a name passed down from the Algonquian people, while at the southern end of their range they are typically known as “gray trout,” “trout” being the name commonly given to the various weakfish species that occur south of Chesapeake Bay,

As a rule, weakfish are an inshore species found in the surf, estuaries and bays, where they feed on fish, shrimp and small crustaceans. However, they do winter in somewhat deeper offshore waters, primarily off North Carolina, and anglers will, on rare occasion, catch a weakfish on an offshore wreck during that time

Recreational Fishery

When reasonably abundant, weakfish support a substantial recreational fishery. Historically, the Peconic Bay system and Great South Bay in New York, Barnegat Bay in New Jersey and Delaware Bay, between New Jersey and Delaware hosted iconic fisheries that arguably received greater mention in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century angling press than did fisheries for striped bass, bluefish and summer flounder.

The historical fishery saw anglers anchoring their boats along tide-swept sod banks and in bay channels, and attracting weakfish to the boat by chumming with grass shrimp, one of the fish’s primary foods. Today, that fishery has been almost completely supplanted by other methods. Bait fishermen now eschew chum, and drift sandworms, bloodworms or strips of squid along the same sod banks and channels that hosted the chummers of centuries past. Those seeking larger weakfish often drift live menhaden or young-of-the-year “snapper” bluefish across inshore structure.

Because weakfish tend to stay close to the bottom, lure fishermen tend toward bucktails and plastic-tailed jigs. However, weakfish will also strike appropriately-sized plugs and tins. When in shallow enough water, they are also a popular target for salt water fly fishermen. One of the first named salt water fly patterns, the “Squeteager,” was developed in Rhode Island right after World War II.

Historically, weakfish abundance has been subject to wide fluctuations, which is reflected in recreational landings, which peaked in 1981, when more than 9,300,000 weakfish were harvested, and reached their lowest point in 2011, when anglers took fewer than 36,000 weakfish home. Angler effort reflected weakfish abundance. In 1981, anglers took nearly 970,000 trips that primarily targeted weakfish; in 2011, they the number of weakfish trips dropped to fewer than 22,000.

Commercial Fishery

The commercial weakfish fishery, like the recreational fishery, is driven by abundance. Commercial landings peaked in 1980, just below 36,000,000 pounds. However, as the weakfish population declined, landings declined as well. Between 2006 and 2015, landings remained below one million pounds, hitting a low of less than 145,000 pounds in 2011.

At the same time, the ex vessel prices paid for weakfish have risen substantially. Because weakfish’s flesh is somewhat soft and distinctively flavored, market demand is limited. During the 1970s and early 1980s, when the fish were abundant, weakfish sold for about $0.20 per pound; prices didn’t exceed $1.00 per pound until 2006. By 2015, the last year for which price data is available, the average price per pound had risen to $1.79.

In recent years, North Carolina has harvested more weakfish than any other state, with New York and Virginia also having significant, but much smaller, fisheries. In 2015, North Carolina accounted for roughly 54% of all commercial weakfish landings.

Gill nets are the primary gear employed in the commercial weakfish fishery, although some are taken in trawls and in pound nets.

Range and Biology

Weakfish can range along most of the Atlantic coast, from Nova Scotia to southern Florida. However, particularly at the northern end of their range, availability is linked to overall abundance. When the weakfish population expands, the fish are relatively common throughout southern New England, where they support important recreational and commercial fisheries in Connecticut, Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts. However, the range contracts as the population declines; during periods of low abundance, weakfish are rarely found north of New York.

Weakfish can live to be at least 17 years old, an age confirmed by biologists who analyzed the growth rings in an otolith—the “ear bone” found in a fish’s head—from a weakfish caught in Delaware Bay. 97% of one-year-old weakfish are sexually mature, although they produce few eggs at that size. A two-year-old weakfish, by comparison, produces thirty times more. Weakfish are serial spawners, meaning that individual females don’t release all of their eggs at one time; instead, they release batches of eggs over a long period that, in North Carolina, can last from March through September. The spawning season is shorter farther north. In New York, for example, it only runs from May through mid-July.

Management

Weakfish are managed solely by the states, acting through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Anglers are currently limited to a one-fish bag limit and 16-inch minimum size. The commercial fishery is managed with a 100-pound trip limit for directed fisheries, a 100-pound bycatch limit for incidental fisheries and a 100-fish bycatch of sub-12-inch weakfish permitted in the trawl fishery

Stock Status

The weakfish stock is currently considered “depleted,” although overfishing is not currently occurring.

A stock assessment released in 2009 determined that the current low population level is not due to overfishing, but instead to exceptionally high natural mortality, which is probably due to some combination of predation and competition for available food resources by other species. It is characterized by a biological “bottleneck” that prevents many weakfish from surviving past their first year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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