King Mackerel

King Mackerel

Scomberomorus cavalla


    Cavalla, Cero, 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. King mackerel is not productive enough to support these large commercial harvests, especially when combined with the species' popularity with recreational fishermen. Federal managers implemented regulations in 1983 to control harvest and rebuild dwindling 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 king mackerel fishery, capping participation in the fishery a certain level that will keep the mackerel resource and fisheries sustainable for years to come. 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

Managers recently implemented new measures for the king mackerel fishery, establishing annual catch limits and accountability measures that will prevent future overharvest of the king mackerel resource.



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. They live in water 115 to almost 600 feet deep. King mackerel prefer warm waters, and seldom enter waters below 68 degrees Fahreneheit. 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 5½ feet and 100 pounds, and can live more than 20 years. They're able to reproduce when they reach 2 years of age. King mackerel 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.

King mackerels 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 can be distinguished by their sharply dipping lateral line and gray anterior dorsal fin.



There are two "migratory groups" of king mackerel, one in the South Atlantic and one in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists from NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center monitor the abundance of South Atlantic and Gulf king mackerel. Scientists, managers, and stakeholders assess the status of these stocks through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process. King mackerel were last assessed in 2008.



Both stocks are above their target population levels.





Harvesting King Mackerel

King mackerel are large, put up a good fight, and taste delicious, 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 harvesting king mackerel using hook-and-line gear such as handlines, rod-and-reel, and troll gear. Hook-and-line gear has minimal impact on habitat as it does not contact the ocean floor. It is also very selective, so the fishery has little bycatch.



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

  • 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, to allow fish to mature and spawn.
  • The fishing season for king mackerel in the Atlantic opens 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 opens July 1 and ends June 30, or when the season's quota is reached.
  • Gear restrictions - Florida state regulations prohibit the use of gillnets off Florida; federal regulations prohibit the use of gillnets except seasonally in an area off the west coast of southern Florida and south of Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

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


Annual Harvest

Commercial landings of Atlantic king mackerel have increased in recent years. In the past 3 years, landings have averaged 3.6 million pounds, compared to an average of 2.8 million pounds for the past decade. In the Gulf, commercial landings of king mackerel have been relatively steady at around 3.3 million pounds.



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



There is equal interest in both recreational and commercial fishing for king mackerel. Recreational landings in both the South Atlantic and Gulf have been comparable or larger than the commercial harvest since the 1980s. In the past decade, annual recreational landings have averaged about 4.2 million pounds in the Atlantic and about 3.7 million pounds in the Gulf.

Recreational management measures include limits on the how many mackerel fishermen can catch and how small those fish can be. 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