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North Carolina Fisherman-Scientist Partnership Changes South Atlantic Black Sea Bass Fishery

Bringing together commercial fisherman and scientists to work on a common problem.

By E-Ching Lee, North Carolina Sea Grant

Good partners are key to successful collaboration

Just ask Tom Burgess, a commercial black sea bass fisherman from Sneads Ferry, NC. He has teamed with North Carolina Sea Grant scientists to study black sea bass since 2006.

The fruitful partnership has altered scientists’ and managers’ understanding of the black sea bass population in the South Atlantic. The studies even have led to increased catch limits and gear that keeps legal-sized fish while letting out undersized sea bass.

Burgess brings decades of experience working the waters. His collaborators — Jeff Buckel, a fisheries biologist at North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, and Paul Rudershausen, a graduate student and technician at the center — ensure that their work is conducted in a scientific manner that meets management agencies’ protocols.

For more than seven years, North Carolina Sea Grant has supported their partnership through a state-funded fisheries program that encourages such cooperation. North Carolina Sea Grant was able to bring together two key groups — scientists and people with on-the-water knowledge — to work on a common problem.

Black sea bass, or Centropristis striata, is a relative of the grouper. There are two separate stocks of black sea bass in the Atlantic, roughly divided at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Burgess is working on the South Atlantic portion of the stock, south of Cape Hatteras. This population, managed by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, or SAFMC, is considered viable and not overfished. Burgess also served as a council member until summer 2013.

The studies are unassuming. Burgess and his collaborators have estimated the best mesh size to catch legal-sized fish, and the survival rate of black sea bass after release. But Scott Baker, North Carolina Sea Grant’s fisheries specialist, says that the sum is greater than its parts.

“Overall, Tom’s projects have greatly advanced the state of knowledge for the black sea bass fishery in the South Atlantic. Each project has addressed individual research needs, but when taken together, these impacts have greatly benefited the fishery,” Baker notes.

“He’s just very forward thinking, cares about the resource and is very appreciative of the fact that this is his livelihood,” says Michelle Duval, vice chair of the SAFMC and chair of the snapper grouper committee that manages the black sea bass fishery.

“I think Tom is a great example of seeing a management issue and framing the research that can help inform that,” adds Duval, who represents the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries director on different regional councils.

In September 2013, NOAA Fisheries approved the SAFMC’s recommendation that the annual commercial and recreational catch limit for black sea bass be increased from 847,000 pounds to more than 1.8 million pounds.

Baker credits a Burgess project for this change. The fisherman had helped researchers estimate the discard mortality for black sea bass, the percentage of the fish that are expected to die after being returned to the water. The results from that study were used in a recent federal stock assessment of black sea bass in the southeast that determined that the sea bass population is rebuilt — and led to the higher catch limits.

“I like to do research that has direct application, and the work we’ve done with Tom, it’s really neat. You finish a project and then you see a regulation change or maybe new questions come up from the study that the council wants addressed, so there’s this nice interaction between the management and the science,” collaborator Buckel concludes.

“That’s been very rewarding for me, and I know for Tom and Paul too.”

Burgess participates in these studies for a reason. “It would be good for the resource and good for the business.”

Read more about Burgess’ most recent project in North Carolina Sea Grant’s Coastwatch magazine.

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