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.
Bluefish are pursued predominantly by recreational anglers, with recreational harvest accounting for approximately 80% of total removals in recent years. Anglers target bluefish near inlets, shoals, and rips that often hold large schools of bait which creates a attract bluefish feeding frenzy. The excitement involved in angling these aggressive fighters makes them the second most harvested species behind striped bass.
Recreational harvest declined from a peak of 92.9 million pounds in 1986 to a low of 7.3 million pounds in 1999. Recreational harvest has increased slightly since then, with the most recent 5-year average equal to 13.3 million pounds. In 2015, anglers harvested a total of 11.7 million pounds of bluefish, a 10% increase from 2014. Both total numbers and the proportion of fish released alive by anglers has increased over this time period; 18% were released alive from 1981-1985 (an average of 5 million fish), while 62% were released alive from 2010-2014 (an average of 9.2 million fish). Recreational releases are assumed to have a 15% mortality rate; therefore, total removals from the recreational fishery include both harvested fish (kept or discarded dead) and 15% of fish released alive. Total recreational removals peaked in 1986 at 104 million pounds, declined to a low of 13.1 million pounds in 1999, and rebounded somewhat after that to an average of 20 million pounds over the last five years.
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 17.2 million pounds (1981). Currently, the commercial fishery is managed under a state quota system and landings since 2005 have ranged between 4.5 and 7.1 million pounds. 2015 commercial landings totaled 4.3 million pounds, about 60% of which were landed in New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Based on the 2015 benchmark stock assessment and peer review conducted by the Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop, bluefish are not overfished and not experiencing overfishing relative to the new biological reference points defined in the assessment. Though the assessment indicated bluefish are neither experiencing overfishing nor considered overfished, the assessment indicates lower biomass estimates and reference points relative to the previous assessment. Spawning stock biomass (SSB) in 2014 was estimated to be 191 million pounds, which is less than the SSB target (223 million pounds) but greater than the SSB threshold (112 million pounds). Fishing mortality (F) in 2014 was estimated to be 0.157, below the F threshold (FMSY PROXY = F35%SPR =0.19).
The biological reference points for fishing mortality and total biomass estimated in the previous assessment were based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY). However, MSY-based reference points require a reliable relationship between spawning stock biomass in one year and the number of recruits (i.e., number of fish entering the population) the next year. This stock-recruitment relationship is poorly defined for bluefish, due to the lack of information on recruitment at small stock sizes. Therefore, spawning potential ratio-based (SPR-based) reference points were used as a proxy for MSY-based reference points.
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 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, which 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, while the recreational fishery is managed using a 15 fish bag limit.
The Commission and Council meet jointly, typically in August, to review fishery specifications and formalize commercial and recreational catch limits and other management measures. 2016 was the first year of a three-year specification cycle, with the Commission and Council approving a final 2016 commercial quota of 4.88 million pounds and a recreational harvest limit of 11.58 million pounds. The Commission and Council did not make any changes to the 2017 and 2018 specifications, although these may change following the release of 2016 and 2017 final harvest estimates.
A coastwide biological sampling program to improve the quantity and quality of information used in future bluefish stock assessments was approved and implemented in 2012 through Addendum I. A 2013 review the inaugural biological sampling program found the geographic range, distribution of sampling times, and program design are effectively capturing age data. As a result of the provisions of Addendum I, the Commission and the states were able to significantly increase the amount of age data used in the 2015 benchmark assessment, resulting in improved age-length keys and catch-at-age data compared to the last benchmark assessment.