Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) are a migratory, oceanic species found throughout the world in most temperate, coastal regions, except the eastern Pacific. Bluefish migrate seasonally, moving north in spring and summer as water temperatures rise and moving south in autumn and winter to waters in the South Atlantic Bight. During the summer, concentrations of bluefish are found in waters from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In winter they tend to be found offshore between Cape Hatteras and Florida. Bluefish generally school by size, with schools that can cover tens of square miles of ocean, equivalent to around 10,000 football fields.
Bluefish are fast growers and opportunistic predators, feeding voraciously on almost any prey they can capture. Bluefish live up to 12 years and may exceed lengths of 39" and weights of 31 pounds. Bluefish reach sexual maturity at age two and spawn offshore from Massachusetts through Florida. Discrete groups spawn at different times and are referred to by the season in which they spawn: the spring-spawned cohort and the summer-spawned cohort. Recent research has also identified a fall-spawned cohort, demonstrating an expanded and prolonged spawning season. The cohorts mix extensively on the fishing grounds and probably comprise a single genetic stock.
One of the most popular recreational fish along the Atlantic coast, a father and sons with a bluefish. Photo credit: John McMurray, www.nyflyfishing.com
Bluefish support recreational and commercial fisheries along the entire Atlantic coast. The recreational sector is most popular, accounting for 70% of the total catch by weight from 1981 to 2009.
Bluefish support recreational and commercial fisheries along the entire Atlantic coast. Commercial fishermen target bluefish using a variety of gears including trawls, gillnets, haul seines, and pound nets. Commercial harvest peaked in the 1980s, with the highest recorded harvest totaling almost 16.5 million pounds (1981). Currently, the commercial fishery is managed under a state quota system and landings since 2005 have ranged between 6.6 and 7.1 million pounds. In 2011, commercial landings totaled 5.4 million pounds. Over the past decade, North Carolina, New York, and New Jersey have landed the largest percentage of bluefish.
The recreational sector is more popular, accounting for 70% of the total catch by weight from 1981 to 2009. In 2011, recreational harvest was estimated to be 11.5 million pounds. Anglers target bluefish near inlets, shoals, and rips that often hold large schools of bait attracting bluefish into a feeding frenzy. The excitement involved in angling these aggressive fighters makes them the second most harvested species behind striped bass.
The 2012 stock assessment update indicates that bluefish is not overfished or experiencing overfishing. The assessment is annually updated in the spring and used to help set total allowable landings for the following year. The current biological reference points for Atlantic bluefish are: biomass threshold of 324 million pounds; biomass target of 162 million pounds; and a fishing mortality target of 0.19. Fishing mortality in 2011 was 0.114, below the F target. Fishing mortality steadily declined from 0.34 in 1987 to 0.12 in 1999 and has remained steady since 2000 with an average F=0.138. Recent total stock biomass estimates peaked in 1982 at 745 million pounds, then declined to 171 million pounds by 1996 before increasing steadily to the 301 million pounds in 2010. The 2011 estimate of biomass is 293 million pounds, approximately 90% of the target despite being declared rebuilt in 2009. Recruitment has remained relatively constant since 2002 at around 20 million age-0 bluefish, with the exception of a relatively large 2006 cohort estimated as 35.1 million fish. However, the 2010 and 2011 recruitment estimates were well below average at 14.6 and 10.6 million fish, respectively. The next benchmark assessment is currently scheduled for 2013.
Bluefish is managed under Amendment 1 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Bluefish Fishery and Addendum I. The Commission and Council approved Amendment 1 to the FMP in 1998. Amendment 1 allocates 83% of the resource to recreational fisheries and 17% to commercial fisheries. However, the commercial quota can be increased up to 10.5 million pounds if the recreational fishery is projected to not land its entire allocation for the upcoming year. The commercial fishery is controlled through state-by-state quotas based on historic landings from 1981-1989. The recreational fishery is managed using a 15 fish bag limit.
The Addendum I, approved in 2012, establishes a coastwide sampling program to improve the quantity and quality of information available for use in future bluefish stock assessments.
Although the bluefish stock currently exceeds the biological reference points and is no longer under a formal rebuilding plan, the Council and Commission are exploring uncertainties involved in the assessment approach. Currently, aging techniques are being developed to obtain a coastwide age structure analysis of the bluefish stock, in an effort to increase the validity of stock assessment results. Managing bluefish using the best available science continues to be a priority for this important fish species.