Weakfish, Cynoscion regalis
Weakfish occur from Cape Cod south to southern Florida; although, few occur in
nearshore waters south of the Indian River Lagoon. Weakfish juveniles are euryhaline and
occur in coastal bays, lagoons, and rivers. Adults are found in estuaries, generally in
deeper channels and holes, and in nearshore continental shelf waters. Past studies
suggested the possible existence of more than one stock of weakfish, but genetic
analyses support the occurrence of only one genetic stock (Crawford et al. 1989; Graves et
al. 1992b; Cordes and Graves 2003).
Differences noted in otolith elemental and isotopic composition suggest important spatial
structure of the weakfish population in relation with natal estuaries, but sufficient
exist even among estuaries with the highest levels of natal homing (Thorrold et al. 1998,
Growth of weakfish had been described using scale patterns to determine age. Lowerre-
Barbieri et al. (1995) found, as has been shown for other fish species, that scales
Weakfish attain a maximum age of at least 17 years and a maximum size or total length
(TL) of about 33 inches (Table 1; Lowerre-Barbieri et al. 1995). Females apparently attain
sexually maturity at age 1 or 2 when their standard lengths (SL) are about 5.9–7.9 inches
(Merriner 1976) or 7–12 inches TL (Lowerre-Barbieri et al. 1995). Spawning occurs in
nearshore and estuarine waters from late spring through early fall.
Juvenile weakfish feed on mysids, shrimps, amphipods, isopods, and fishes such as
anchovies, herrings, and drums (Merriner 1975; Stickney et al. 1975; Grecay, and Targett
Older weakfish feed more on herring-like fishes.
While weakfish are occasionally reported caught and landed on the gulf coast, we regard
these reports as misidentifications for the purpose of this report. In addition, all Atlantic
coast reports of sand seatrout, Cynoscion arenarius, are regarded here as weakfish;
although, recent genetics work shows that sand seatrout and sand seatrout x weakfish
hybrids do occur in waters along the Florida Atlantic coast (M. Tringali, FWC-FWRI
unpublished data). The 2005 Florida landings of weakfish totaled 107,132 pounds. These
landings were made mostly by recreational fishers (93% of statewide landings by weight).
Historic landings were primarily from the commercial fishery (60% by weight); however,
since 1996, the fishery has shifted, becoming predominantly recreational (over 70%–85%
by weight). Annual commercial landings were highest in Duval and Brevard Counties in
2005 (Fig. 1). Most recreational fisheries landings were made in northeast Florida (Fig. 2).
The 2005 total landings of weakfish were 78% higher than the average landings in the
previous five years (2000–2004) but were still 40% lower than the 1982–2005 historical
average landings (Fig. 3). Between 1982 and 2001, the highest landings of weakfish
occurred in 1983– 1984 (about 480,000 pounds each year); landings declined sharply the
following year (Fig. 3).
From 1985 to 1994, total landings increased from 154,000 to 329,000 pounds followed by
decline from 1995 to 1998, during which time landings reached their lowest levels.
Landings of weakfish increased in 1999 and 2000, due to increases in the recreational
fishery, but then declined again reaching to near their historic lows in 2003, about 25,000
pounds landed. The creel-survey interview sample size has doubled in recent years and
recent landings estimates may be influenced by the increased precision of the MRFSS
Commercial catch-per-trip dropped sharply on the Atlantic coast between 1993 and 1996.
Catch rates increased to pre-1995 levels in the late 1990s before a long slow decline
beginning in 1998 (Fig. 4). Total catch rates for the recreational fishery have remained
relatively stable since 1991, except for peaks seen during the late 1990s (Fig. 5).
The fishery-independent survey indicates that abundance of young-of-the-year weakfish
was greatest during 1997 and 1999 but has been low during the 2000s except for 2001
Post-young-of-the-year abundance was relatively high from 2001–2003 but dropped to low
levels in 2004 and 2005 (Fig. 7). No gross external abnormalities were observed in
weakfish from 1999 to 2005.
The ASMFC weakfish stock assessment panel conducts coastwide assessments of
weakfish. Findings from the most recent assessment report (Kahn et al. 2005) show that
biomass-weighted fishing mortality (F) was relatively high in the 1980s, rose in the late
1980s and early 1990s, began to decline in 1993 and reached a low and relatively
constant level of about 0.25 per year from 1995-2000. Fishing mortality then gradually
increased to 2003, when it was higher than the model estimate of FMSY of 0.33 per year.
These findings imply that stock size was low in 1990, climbed to a peak in 1998 of 29,000
mt, then declined through 2003 to below 9,000 mt. Surplus production increased sharply in
1993-1994, was stable from 1995- 1998, then dropped, to near zero or negative values
from 1999-2002, indicating little or no sustainable harvest after 1998. The Gompertz
surplus production model estimated biological reference points of BMSY = 23,540 mt and
FMSY = 0.33.
Weakfish are managed under a fisheries management plan developed by the Atlantic
States Marine Fisheries Commission. Florida complies with this management plan
through its implementation of a 12-inch minimum size, 4-fish recreational bag limit and the
constitutional amendment that regulates inshore nets. Since 1995, Florida has been
granted de minimus status because Florida accounts for less than 1% of U.S. coastwide
weakfish landings. Florida-specific assessments have been made for weakfish and
despite weakfish’s coastwide distribution, may be of value to assessing local population
changes. The estimated number of weakfish on Florida's Atlantic coast increased from
803,610 in 1986 to 1,072,840 in 1993 (de Silva and Muller 2001).
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