Bluefish are a migratory, pelagic 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 the South Atlantic Bight. During the summer, concentrations of bluefish are found in waters from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. During winter’s colder months they tend to be found offshore between Cape Hatteras and Florida. Bluefish generally school by size, with schools covering up to tens of square miles.
Bluefish are fast growers and opportunistic predators, feeding voraciously on almost any prey they can capture. Over 70 species of fish have been found in their stomach contents, including butterfish, mackerel, and lobster. Razor sharp teeth and a shearing jaw movement allow bluefish to ingest large parts, which increases the maximum prey size bluefish can catch. Bluefish live up to 12 years and may exceed 39 inches and 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. (A cohort is defined as a group of fish spawned during a given period, usually within a year; also known as a year-class or age-class.) 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 predominantly a recreational fishery, with recreational harvest accounting for approximately 87% of total removals in recent years. As bluefish migrate seasonally up and down the Atlantic coast, anglers from Maine to Florida target these voracious predators near inlets, shoals, and rips, where they come to feed on large schools of bait. Recreational harvest peaked at 151.46 million pounds in 1986, but quickly declined in the 80s and 90s to its current average annual recreational harvest of approximately 32 million pounds. In 2019, recreational anglers harvested an estimated 12.1 million fish weighing 15.6 million pounds. Both 2018 and 2019 represent years of low harvest relative to the time series average in both pounds and numbers of fish. Bluefish recreational releases have averaged approximately two thirds of the total catch in numbers of fish since 1999.
Commercial landings decreased from 16.5 million pounds in 1981 to 7.3 million pounds in 1999. Since a state-specific quota system was implemented in 2000, commercial landings have averaged around 6.3 million pounds annually. 2018 marked a commercial landings time series low of 2.44 million pounds, but has since recovered slightly to 2.99 million pounds in 2019. The majority of bluefish were landed in Rhode Island, New York, North Carolina in 2019.
Based on the 2019 operational stock assessment and peer review conducted by the Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop, bluefish are overfished, but are not experiencing overfishing. The updated stock assessment incorporated data through 2018 and included revised estimates of recreational catch and effort from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). MRIP uses surveys to estimate how many fishing trips recreational anglers take every year and how many fish per trip they catch. In 2018, MRIP transitioned from a phone-based survey to a mail-based survey to estimate the number of angler trips. The new, improved survey showed the number of trips taken across the time series was much higher than had been previously estimated, and as a result, estimates of recreational catch were much higher for bluefish. This had a significant influence in scaling up recruitment estimates as well as projections for potential biomass. The biological reference points for spawning stock biomass (SSB) increased relative to the estimates of existing SSB, causing a switch from the not overfished status in the 2015 benchmark assessment to the overfished designation in the 2019 operational assessment.
SSB in 2018 was estimated to be 201 million pounds, which is 92% of the SSB threshold of 219 million pounds. Fishing mortality (F) in 2018 was estimated to be 0.146, below the F threshold (FMSY PROXY= F35% =0.183). Though the assessment indicated bluefish are not experiencing overfishing in 2018, the stock has experienced overfishing, relative to the updated reference points, in all prior years dating back to 1985.
A management track stock assessment is scheduled for 2021.
One of the most popular recreational fish along the Atlantic coast, a father and sons with a bluefish. Photo credit: John McMurray, www.nycflyfishing.com
Bluefish is managed under Amendment 1 to the Interstate FMP for Bluefish and Addendum I. 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 under a coastwide 3-fish bag limit for private anglers and shore-based fishermen, and a 5-fish bag limit for for-hire fishermen. A coastwide biological sampling program to improve the quantity and quality of information used in future bluefish stock assessments was implemented in 2012 through Addendum I.
The Commission and Council approved an acceptable biological catch (ABC) limit of 16.28 million pounds for the 2021 fishing season, After accounting for discards, the ABC translates to a commercial quota of 2.77 million pounds and a recreational harvest limit of 8.34 million pounds.
In February 2021, the Commission and Council released the Draft Blueish Allocation and Rebuilding Amendment for public comment. The amendment contains alternatives to:
Comments may be provided at any of 5 virtual public hearings to be held between March 24 and April 8, 2021 or via written comment until April 23, 2021 (see a link to the Draft Amendment and Public Hearing Document under Public Input). In the event you cannot attend a public hearing, a Public Hearing Presentation can be viewed here.