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What Happened to Weakfish?
Large Gray Trout have all but disappeared from angler's favorite fishing holes in most reions of the East Coast.

Articles published about inshore and offshore sportfishing Deep sea fishing article writers at

By Richen Brame
Posted Wednesday, April 5, 2006

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One beautiful gray trout caught on the Virginia Eastern Shore

Weakfish (or gray trout) were thought to be on track for a great recovery from their severely overfished condition in the early 1990s. Back then, the catch was primarily 1- to 2-year-old fish, with a few 3s, which is a prime indication of overfishing. Large commercial trawlers were landing millions of pounds of small weakfish for bait and scrap, and weakfish were one of the top bycatch species in the shrimp trawl fishery.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Weakfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) instituted measures that significantly lowered the commercial and recreational catch and reduced discards. The population appeared to respond well as anglers in 2001 and 2002 were abuzz with not only tales of big weakfish, but also lots of weakfish. Citations were on the rise in nearly every major weakfish state. It was thought the age structure would fill out and the stock was on track for a complete recovery.

Then, suddenly, the catch tapered off. In 2003, the landings were among the lowest on record recreationally, and the commercial harvest was still low also.

We had learned a hard lesson on summer flounder, when they were declared mostly recovered and commercial harvest restrictions were partly lifted

So what happened? No one really knows, the scientists are literally scratching their heads as I write this. Regardless, recreational catch is usually proportional to abundance and the low catch signals a decrease in abundance.

What is important is a little known meeting that occurred on Long Island, New York, back in the late 1990s. The Weakfish Advisory Panel was meeting to craft proposed input into the future Weakfish FMP and the one sticking point was CCA’s suggestion to add the restoration of the weakfish age structure as an objective in the plan.

In short, CCA wanted the stock to have a lot of fish and some large fish, like in “the old days,” before it could be declared recovered.

We had learned a hard lesson on summer flounder, when they were declared mostly recovered and commercial harvest restrictions were partly lifted. In reality, the stock had a couple of good spawning years, which should have been protected so they could grow old and large, which caused the spawning stock to grow to the point restrictions could be lifted. The result delayed the recovery of summer flounder during the 1990s.

CCA did not want to see that happen with weakfish and so we fought hard for the restoration of the historic age structure, which means having fish in the catch as old as 11 or 12, before the stock could be declared recovered. We were successful and it is paying dividends now.

Were it not for that one provision in the FMP, the ASMFC would have likely declared weakfish recovered several years ago and relaxed the harvest restrictions, with unknown but most likely bad consequences for the stock. Now, since they could not relax restrictions, we may have a chance to discover the problem and fix it before any real damage is done to the stock.

That is why CCA has always fought for complete recovery of a stock, which means restoring the historic age structure and geographic distribution. After all, how can they be recovered without some trophies swimming around and they are in all their old haunts? We will continue to push for the conservation management of weakfish and the complete recovery of this important species.


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