Sea bream are mainly found in the tropics and temperate waters of the world. There are numerous species in the Mediterranean and off the Portuguese coast. However, they are much scarcer in Britain’s chilly waters, and although we do see about eight species, only the red and black breams are at all common.
The black bream is a deep-bodied fish with a small head. The mouth is small and doesn’t reach back to the level of the eye. It is filled with numerous curved teeth, all of them the same size and shape.
The fish has a grey back and silvery flanks, often with six or seven vertical dark bars across the body, though these fade with age. Breeding males are particularly dark in colour and have a humped shoulder – a feature not possessed by the females. Like all members of the sea bream family, the black bream has a long single dorsal fin and a large forked tail.
Although black bream have been caught all around the coasts of the British Isles, they are only really common on the south and western coasts. They are also locally distributed, so that they may be common in one area, but rarely seen in neighbouring regions. The reason they are occasionally captured in northern areas seems to be that the young fish and adults disperse after breeding.
The eastern Channel is the best known region for catching black bream – the local sea bed conditions there are ideal spawning grounds. These consist of fine gravel patches between rocky ledges, or close to reefs and wrecks, which protect the fish from strong currents.
These fish take two to three years to become sexually mature. Unlike other sea bream, black bream lay their eggs in a hollow made in the gravel by the male. The male then guards the nest, and later the young fish, protecting them from predators or other black bream trying to build nests in the same area.
Their habit of breeding in relatively restricted locations has proved unfortunate in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s, the spawning grounds off the Sussex coast were fished so heavily by boat parties that populations dropped dramatically, and the species became quite scarce.
Large numbers of males were caught because this species is one of the few that changes sex as it matures. In this case all black bream begin life as females, then turn into males at between six or seven years old. As the males are the larger fish and confined to guarding the nests, it followed that they were more easily and frequently captured.
Fortunately, the species has recently made a comeback. However, they will thrive only if well-known spawning grounds are left well alone. Even if fish are caught and then put back, it is stressful for the adult fish and the young are left vulnerable to predators.