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 can live for up to 12 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. The South Atlantic stock along the Atlantic coast is distinct from Gulf of Mexico Spanish mackerel.
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 2021 calendar year landings were estimated at 14.6 million pounds, with commercial and recreational fisheries harvesting approximately 33% and 67% of that total, respectively. Coastwide commercial landings have generally been below four million pounds per year since 1995. 2021 calendar year commercial landings are estimated at 4.8 million pounds. Almost 72% of the commercial landings in 2021 occurred in Florida, with most of the remaining harvest occurring in North Carolina.
According to the MRIP Fishing Effort Survey, recreational anglers harvested approximately 8.6 million Spanish mackerel (9.8 million pounds) in the 2021 calendar year, which was a large increase from prior years. Florida and North Carolina have historically accounted for the majority of recreational landings in both number and weight. The number of recreational releases has generally increased over time, reaching the highest amount in the time series at 6.1 million fish in 2021. It is important to note concerns and questions have been raised regarding the 2020 and 2021 recreational catch estimates, and the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) is looking further into these estimates.
Cooperative management by the Commission and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) has successfully rebuilt Spanish mackerel stocks after years of low biomass and increased fishing pressure during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012, Spanish mackerel was assessed and peer reviewed through the SouthEast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR). The results of the 2012 assessment (SEDAR 28) 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. In 2022, an operational assessment (i.e., update to the last assessment) was completed through the SEDAR process with data through 2020. This most recent assessment (SEDAR 78) indicates the same stock status: the stock is not overfished and it is not experiencing overfishing based on a three-year average of fishing mortality (2018-2022). However, in the terminal year of the assessment (2020), the model found the estimated fishing rate to be above the maximum fishing mortality threshold (MFMT) indicating that if the 2020 overfishing rate continues, the stock may fall into an overfishing status.
State waters management of Spanish mackerel along the Atlantic Coast is coordinated through the Commission’s Coastal Pelagics Management Board (formerly part of the South Atlantic State/Federal Fisheries Management Board). Management measures for Spanish mackerel include size limits, recreational bag limits, and commercial trip limits. The Commission’s Omnibus Amendment for Spot, Spotted Seatrout, and Spanish Mackerel was approved 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.
Addendum I (2013) established 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 Addendum responded 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. The program reduced dead discards of these shorter fish and was extended through the 2018 fishing season. After 2018, North Carolina, the only state to implement the reduced minimum size limit, stopped requesting approval of the program due to no further request from pound net fishermen to continue the program, and due to recent closures in federal waters.