King Mackerel

King Mackerel

Scomberomorus cavalla


    Cavalla, Sierra


    U.S. wild-caught from New York to Texas



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King Mackerel

A fisherman dehooks a king mackerel. Photo credit: Collier County Sea Grant Extension


U.S. fishermen harvest several species of mackerel. King mackerel are one of the most commonly caught species off the southeast coast, especially Florida. King mackerel is a large, aggressive fish with a rich flavor, making it popular among both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Commercial fishermen from the U.S. and Mexico have been fishing for king mackerel since the 1880s; recreational fishermen started catching the species in the 1950s. Prior to the 1980s, the fisheries for king mackerel were essentially unregulated. Airplanes were used to find schools of mackerel and would alert large gillnet vessels to their location, greatly increasing commercial harvests and contributing to a population decline. Fishery managers implemented regulations in 1983 to control harvest and rebuild declining stocks of king mackerel. A number of management measures were implemented over the years, including limits on how much mackerel fishermen could harvest and how and where they could harvest it. Managers also implemented a “limited access system” for the commercial king mackerel fishery, capping participation in the fishery at a level that will keep the mackerel resource and fisheries sustainable. These measures have been very successful in restoring king mackerel stocks to target population levels. Today, the mackerel fishery remains viable for both commercial and recreational fishermen, and the fishery’s history is a shining example of the effectiveness of proper management.

Looking Ahead

A historical source of uncertainty in king mackerel science has been the stock origin of the fish caught from November-March in South Florida – what is called the “winter mixing zone.” Scientists and fishermen have known for a long time that the fish caught in this zone can originate from both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. But they didn’t know how much of the catch was from each population. By incorporating fishermen’s expert knowledge of the migratory behavior of these fish into the most recent stock assessment, scientists were able to determine the origin of a significant portion of landings from this winter mixing zone. This resulted in a more precise stock assessment, including a better understanding of where the mixing zone is located. Current management recognizes a mixing zone that extends along most of the east coast of Florida, but new information indicates it is restricted to the area of Monroe County, Florida, south of the Florida Keys. Management will need to be adjusted to accommodate the new information.



King mackerel are found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. They are a “coastal pelagic” species, meaning they live in the open waters near the coast in water 115 to almost 600 feet deep. King mackerel prefer warm waters and seldom enter waters below 68 degrees F. They migrate with seasonal changes in water temperature and with changes in food availability. Swimming in large schools, they migrate to the northern part of their range in the summer and to the southern part in the winter.



King mackerel grow fast, up to 5 ½ feet and 100 pounds, with females growing substantially larger than males. They can live more than 20 years, and are able to reproduce when they reach 2 years of age. King mackerel have two distinct populations, one in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Atlantic. They spawn on the outer continental shelf from May through October. Females release eggs in the open water, where they are fertilized. Females can have 50,000 to several million eggs.

Like many fish species, female king mackerel grow much larger than males, an evolutionary strategy that maximizes the amount of eggs that a female can produce. In fact most of the largest king mackerel caught are females. The most recent stock assessment incorporated these complex growth patterns, resulting in a more accurate reflection of the biology.

King mackerel are carnivores, feeding in the middle of the food chain on fish, squid, and shrimp. They're voracious feeders and have been observed leaping out of the water in pursuit of prey. Juvenile and larger pelagic fish feed on smaller king mackerel. Bottlenose dolphin and large fish such as sharks and tuna feed on adult king mackerel.



King mackerel are iron-gray on the back and silvery on their sides and belly. They have pale to dusky fins. Small king mackerel sometimes have spots like Spanish mackerel, but king mackerel can be distinguished by their sharply dipping lateral line and gray anterior (near the front) dorsal (the upper side) fin.



There are two separate spawning populations of king mackerel that comprise migratory groups, one in the Atlantic and one in the Gulf of Mexico. Both populations mix during the winter in South Florida waters where a large fraction of the catch is landed. Scientists from NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center monitor the abundance of Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico king mackerel. Scientists, managers, and stakeholders assess the status of these stocks through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process.



Both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic stocks of king mackerel are above their target population levels. Neither stock is subject to overfishing.





Harvesting King Mackerel

King mackerel are large, put up a good fight, and taste good, making them a popular target for both commercial and recreational fishermen. The majority of commercial fishing for king mackerel takes place off Florida. Most commercial fishermen catch king mackerel using hook-and-line gear such as handlines, rod-and-reel, and troll gear. Hook-and-line and gillnet gear have minimal impact on habitat as they do not contact the ocean floor. They are also very selective, so the fishery has little bycatch. King mackerel are bycatch in other fisheries that target coastal pelagic species.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils

Current management: Fishery Management Plan for the Coastal Migratory Pelagic Resources in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Region

  • Commerical fishermen must have a permit to harvest king mackerel. Managers limit the number of available permits to limit fishing pressure on the king mackerel resource.
  • Annual catch limit and trip limits - limit on how much fishermen can harvest every season and per fishing trip. The annual limit is divided among areas and user groups.
  • King mackerel must be 2 feet or larger to be harvested, which allows fish time to mature and spawn.
  • The fishing season for king mackerel in the Atlantic opens on March 1 and ends at the end of February, or when the season’s quota is reached. The fishing season for king mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Florida, opens on July 1 and ends June 30, or when the season’s quota is reached. The majority of the west coast of Florida has a season of October 1 through September 30. The southwest Florida area is considered to be occupied by the Atlantic stock of king mackerel for part of the year, and by the Gulf of Mexico stock part of the year, so fishing years and regulations in this region change seasonally.
  • Gear restrictions – Florida state regulations prohibit the use of gillnets in Florida state waters; federal regulations prohibit the use of gillnets except seasonally in an area off the west coast of southern Florida and north of Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

State regulations (for fisheries out to 3 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic except 9 miles offshore of Texas and the west coast of Florida) are fairly consistent with federal regulations.


Annual Harvest

Commercial landings of Atlantic king mackerel have declined in recent years. In the past 3 years, landings have averaged 2.6 million pounds, compared to an average of 3.5 million pounds annually for the past decade. In the Gulf of Mexico, commercial landings of king mackerel have been relatively steady at around 2.3 million pounds annually.



Landings from the commercial sector alone have been valued at an average of nearly $10 million annually over the past few years.



There is equal interest in both recreational and commercial fishing for king mackerel. King mackerel also support a valuable tournament fishery. Recreational landings in both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have been comparable or larger than the commercial harvest since the 1980s. In the past decade, annual recreational landings have averaged about 5.1 million pounds in the Atlantic but have declined to around 2.2 million pounds in the last 3 years. Recreational landings in the Gulf of Mexico have been more stable at around 2.8 million pounds annually.

Recreational management measures include limits on the minimum size and the maximum number of fish that fishermen can catch. Mackerel must be landed with their heads and fins intact. Charter vessel/headboat operators must have a vessel permit for coastal migratory fish and must comply with possession limits.



Raw mackerel is grayish and oily. When cooked, mackerel is off-white to beige in color. The meat is flaky and moist and has a rich, pronounced flavor. For a milder flavor, cut out the outer bands of dark, strong-tasting meat along the midline. Mackerel is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.






King mackerel is low in fat and is a very good source of protein, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, and selenium. King mackerel may contain amounts of methylmercury in excess of the FDA’s recommended limit for nursing moms, moms-to-be, and young children. For more information, see EPA and FDA advice on what you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. disclaimer

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 105
Protein 20.28 g
Fat, total 2 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.363 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 53 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 158 mg

King Mackerel Table of Nutrition