A fast swimming fish, known to gather in large schools and travel great distances, Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus) can be found throughout the coastal waters of the eastern US and the Gulf of Mexico. Their migratory and schooling nature often frustrate anglers, as large congregations of fish can be found in an area one day and gone the next. Spanish mackerel prefer open water but are sometimes found over deep grass beds and reefs, as well as in shallow estuaries. They live for five to eight years. Females spawn by age two, releasing between half a million and 1.5 million eggs. Larvae grow quickly, reaching lengths of 12 to 15 inches in a year. Older fish may weigh several pounds. Along the Atlantic coast, Spanish mackerel range from the Florida Keys to New York, and occasionally as far north as New England. These fish winter off Florida, moving northward to North Carolina in early April and to New York in June. Later in the year, as waters cool, Spanish mackerel return to warm Florida waters.
Spanish mackerel support significant recreational and commercial fisheries in South Atlantic waters and the species is gaining importance in the Mid-Atlantic. Many anglers target and catch Spanish mackerel to use whole fish as bait for big game fishing. Total 2015 landings were 3 million pounds, with commercial and recreational fisheries harvesting approximately 70% and 30% of the resource, respectively.
Coastwide commercial landings have been consistently below four million pounds since 1995, with the exception of 2010 and 2011 when commercial landings increased to over 4.3 million pounds. 2015 landings are estimated at 2.32 million pounds. Over two-thirds of the landings occurred in Florida, with the remaining harvest occurring in North Carolina.
Recreational anglers harvested approximately 628,000 Spanish mackerel (695,000 pounds) in 2015. Recreational harvests have been in decline from 2010 to 2015. Historical numbers of recreationally-harvested fish appear to show a cyclical trend, with low harvests in the early to mid-1980s and mid- to late 1990s, interspersed with higher harvests. As seen in previous years, North Carolina accounted for the majority of the recreational harvest, with 62% of fish harvested. South Carolina caught 21% of recreationally-harvested fish in 2015, despite catching an average proportion of only 7% over the previous 10 years. The number of recreational releases has declined since 2013, with 406,535 releases in 2015. However, the proportion of recreational catch released in 2015 (65%) was the highest on record.
Cooperative management by the Commission and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) has successfully rebuilt Spanish mackerel stocks after years of overfishing. In 2012, Spanish mackerel was assessed and peer reviewed through the SouthEast Data, Assessment and Review. The results of the assessment indicate that the stock is not overfished and it is not experiencing overfishing. The stock biomass remained at a low level from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s and has been steadily increasing since 1995. Fishing mortality has been decreasing since the early 1990s.
The South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board approved the Omnibus Amendment for Spot, Spotted Seatrout, and Spanish Mackerel in 2011. Specific to Spanish mackerel, the Amendment includes commercial and recreational management measures, adaptive management measures, and a process for Board review and action in response to changes in the federal regulations. This allows for complementary management throughout the range of the species.
The Board approved Addendum I (2013) to establish a pilot program to allow states to reduce the Spanish mackerel minimum size limit for the commercial pound net fishery to 11½ inches from July through September for the 2013 and 2014 fishing years. The program is intended to reduce waste of these shorter fish, which are discarded dead in the summer months, by converting them to landed fish that will be counted against the quota. The Addendum responds to reports about the increased incidence of Spanish mackerel ¼ to ½ inch short of the 12 inch fork length minimum size limit in pound nets during the summer months which die prior to being released, possibly due to a combination of temperature, stress, and crowding. While work has been done to experiment with wall or panel mesh sizes and use of cull panels, little success has been made in releasing undersized fish quickly enough to prevent dead discards during this time of year.
In August 2015, the Board evaluated the success of the pilot program and extended the provisions of Addendum I for the 2015 and 2016 fishing years. North Carolina, the only state to implement the Addendum thus far, provides annual reports to the Board on Spanish mackerel catch in its pound net fishery. The Board approved North Carolina continuing the program for the 2017 fishing season.