Marine - Species

Southern Kingfish - Click to enlarge photo

SC Species Regulations for Southern kingfish

Saltwater Fishing License required.

Not managed in South Carolina. No size, creel, or season limits.

SC Marine Gamefish Tagging

Southern kingfish (Menticirrhus americanus)

General Description
Elongate, silvery-gray or tan, belly white; 7 – 8 faint dark bars on sides. Margins of fins often dark; pelvic, anal, and caudal fins often yellowish. Mouth small and inferior; single short rigid barbell on chin.

Average Size
6 – 10 inches, 0.5 pounds
South Carolina State Record: 2 pounds, 10 ounces (1968);
maximum age: approx. 6 years (majority of fish rarely survive more than 3 years).


Adults and juveniles occur over muddy or sand-mud bottoms in shallow coastal water and estuaries. Also common along beaches, near inlets and mouths of larger coastal sounds; juveniles sometimes in upper estuaries.

Reproductive Cycle

  • Mature by age 1; approx. size at maturity: males – 5.3 inches, females – 7.5 inches.
  • Move offshore to spawn April – September. Larger individuals may return to summer habitat after breeding.
  • Larvae enter nearshore waters late spring and utilize estuaries and beaches as nursery grounds. Young fish move seaward as they grow.

Foraging Habits

  • Use chin barbel to locate bottom prey in estuaries and in the surf. Feed primarily on marine worms, crabs and shrimp. Larvae feed on zooplankton.

Availability/Vulnerability to Harvest

  • Commonly called “whiting,” and the most abundant of three kingfish species in South Carolina.
  • Tolerate greater salinity and temperature ranges than northern and gulf kingfish. Inhabit state waters year-round; taken inshore from piers and bridges, and in the surf. Inshore harvest peaks during late spring and early fall migrations. Overwinter in deeper water offshore.
  • Conservation concerns: degradation and loss of estuarine and nearshore habitat; potential for significant recreational harvest; potential for significant mortality as by-catch in southeast U.S. shrimp trawl fishery.

Abundance of Species


Graphs of abundance show relative annual abundance in South Carolina waters based on surveys conducted by the SC Department of Natural Resources.

Abundance is presented relative to the average of the 10 most recent years. Unlike graphs of the recreational and commercial fisheries catch, the abundance graphs use survey data that have been standardized to allow direct comparison among years.

The horizontal dotted lines above or below the "10 year average" represent one "standard deviation" unit, which is a measure of how variable the annual data are around the 10-year average. In general, the area between one standard deviation above the mean and one standard deviation below the average includes approximately 68% of the values. Approximately 95% percent of observations in the data set are found within two standard deviations of the average.

Fishery Status

Southern Kingfish Recreational Fishery Graph - Select image to view larger graph

Total recreational catch was relatively low throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s but increased significantly from 2003-2009. After 2009, catches decreased, but still remained higher than the 1981-2000 time period. The 10 year average is high compared to most years of the survey due to the elevated catches from 2003-2009, which included 7 of the previous 10 years. There was no apparent reason for the elevated catches during these years.

Commercial landings for southern kingfish are limited in recent years with reported landings occurring from 1978-2003. Commercial landings peaked in the 1980’s and declined through 2003. The most recent 10 year average for commercial landings (1993-2003) was 55,736 live pounds. More Information.

Literature Cited

Bearden CW. 1963. A contribution to the biology of the king whitings, genus Menticirrhus, of South Carolina. Contributions from Bears Bluff Laboratories no. 38, Wadmalaw Island, SC. 27 pp.

Fischer W. 1978. FAO identification sheets for fisheries purposes: western central Atlantic (fishing area 31) volume 1 – 7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Goldstein RJ. 2000. Coastal fishing in the Carolinas: from surf, pier, and jetty. John F. Blair Publisher, Winston-Salem, NC. 243 pp.

Moore CJ, M Barkley. 2005. South Carolina’s guide to saltwater fishes. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Special Publication. Columbia, SC. 132 pp.

Murdy EO, RS Birdsong, JA Musick. 1997. Fishes of Chesapeake Bay. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 324 pp.

Sikora WB, JP Sikora. 1982. Habitat suitability index models: Southern kingfish. US Dept. Fish Wildl. Serv. FWS/OBS-82/10.31. 22 pp.

Smith JW, CA Wenner. 1985. Biology of the southern kingfish in the South Atlantic Bight. Trans Amer Fish Soc 114: 356-366.

Wenner CA, P Webster. 2005. Kingfishes. In: Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Columbia, SC. Available: Accessed: December, 2009.