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 2014 landings were 4.4 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. 2014 landings are estimated at 3.72 million pounds. Over two-thirds of the landings occur in Florida, with the remaining amount harvested in North Carolina.
Recreational anglers harvested 1.14 million pounds of Spanish mackerel in 2014. The number of recreationally-harvested fish appears to show a cyclical trend, with low harvests in the early to mid-1980s and mid- to late 1990s, interspersed with higher harvests. Florida (43%) and North Carolina (45%) continue to account for the majority of recreational landings in number. The number of recreational releases of Spanish mackerel has generally increased over time with 490,000 fish released in 2014.
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.
Spanish mackerel is one of several species that the Commission manages cooperatively with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC). Since adoption of the Fishery Management Plan in 1990, Southern and Mid-Atlantic states have responded to the plan's recommendations through implementation of bag limits, size limits, commercial trip limits, and /or provisions for seasonal closures to complement the Council's measures for federal waters. Implementation of these measures helped rebuilt the fishery from a level that was once in decline.
The Commission's South Atlantic Board approved the Omnibus Amendment for Spot, Spotted Seatrout, and Spanish Mackerel in 2011. The Amendment updates all three species plans with requirements of the Commission's Interstate Fisheries Management Program Charter. 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 will allow for complementary management throughout the range of the species. The Omnibus Amendment includes provisions that are consistent with the SAFMC's recently approved Amendment 18. The Omnibus Amendment was implemented by the states on July 1, 2012.
In 2013, the South Atlantic Board approved Addendum I, establishing a pilot program to allow states to reduce the Spanish mackerel minimum size limit for the commercial pound net fishery to 11½ inches during the months of July through September for the 2013 and 2014 fishing years only. The measure 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. After the 2014 fishing year, the Board will evaluate the success of the program for consideration in years beyond 2014. 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. While the fish are alive in the pound net, once the net is bunted and bailing commences, they die before being released. This may be due to a combination of temperature, stress, and crowding. While individual fishermen have experimented with different wall or panel mesh sizes depending on the target species, there is no consistent use of cull panels. Those who have used cull panels have noted the difficulty and lack of success in being able to release the undersized fish quickly enough to prevent dead discards during this time of year. In August 2015, the South Atlantic Board extended the provisions of Addendum I for the 2015 and 2016 fishing years.
Juvenile Spanish mackerel captured as part of the NJ DEP Delaware River Seine Survey. Photo credit: NJ DEP