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 2019 landings were 8.7 million pounds, with commercial and recreational fisheries harvesting approximately 45% and 55%, respectively. Coastwide commercial landings have generally been below four million pounds since 1995. 2017 commercial landings are estimated at 3.9 million pounds. Over 70% of the landings occurred in Florida, with most of the remaining harvest occurring in North Carolina.
Recreational anglers harvested approximately 1.1 million Spanish mackerel (1.4 million pounds) in 2019. Recreational harvest in 2019 increased from 2018 levels. North Carolina (40% of fish) and Florida (20%) accounted for the majority of the recreational harvest. The number of recreational releases has generally increased over time, reaching the second highest amount in the time series at 969,000 fish.
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 (SEDAR). 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 next benchmark assessment through SEDAR is scheduled to start in early 2021.
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.
The provisions of Addendum I were maintained for the 2019 fishing season, allowing states to use a reduced minimum size of 11.5” in the commercial pound net fishery for the months of July through September. The measure is intended to reduce waste of shorter fish, which are discarded dead in the summer months, by converting them to landed fish that will be counted against the quota. 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.