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. 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 4.5 and 7.1 million pounds. 2013 commercial landings totaled 4.3 million pounds, three-quarters of which were landed in New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
The recreational sector is more popular, accounting for approximately 66% of the total catch by weight. Since 1999, recreational harvest has averaged 16.2 million pounds, In 2013, anglers harvested a total of 15.2 million pounds, a 30% increase from 2012. 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 2014 stock assessment update finds the resource to be in good condition; it is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. Total biomass is estimated at 252 million pounds, approximately 78% of its target and about a 3% decline from 2010. Fishing mortality is estimated to be 0.118, below the fishing mortality threshold (0.19).
Taking these findings, 2013 landings, and the suspension of the Research Set-Aside (RSA) Program for 2015 into account, the Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (Council) adopted a 5.12 million pound commercial quota and a 13.07 million pound recreational harvest limit for the 2014 fishery.
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.
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 and it can be used in the next benchmark assessment, currently scheduled for 2015.