Pacific Mackerel

Pacific Mackerel

Scomber japonicus


    Chub Mackerel, Spanish Mackerel


    U.S. wild-caught from Washington to California



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Pacific mackerel.


Pacific mackerel are harvested by the same boats that catch Pacific sardine, anchovy, jack mackerel, and market squid. These boats are generally referred to as the West Coast “wetfish” fleet. Most Pacific mackerel is canned for human consumption or pet food, with a small but increasing amount sold as fresh fish.

The commercial fishery for Pacific mackerel has changed considerably over the past century. This fish supported one of California’s major fisheries during the 1930s and 1940s and, even more recently, in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early days of the fishery, Pacific mackerel were harvested with sardines and sold fresh and later, canned. Landings decreased in the early 1930s due to the Great Depression and the resulting decline in demand, but increased significantly by the mid-1930s (66,400 metric tons in 1935–1936). Unfortunately, the stock collapsed in the mid 1960s. Harvests declined but for many years, demand for canned mackerel remained steady and exceeded supply. Supply reached record low levels in the early 1970s, and the State of California placed a moratorium on the directed fishery. The stock recovered from the mid to late 1970s, and the moratorium was lifted. Through the 1990s, the fishery ranked third in volume for finfish landed in California, but the market for canned mackerel fluctuated due to availability and economic conditions. Domestic demand for canned Pacific mackerel eventually died out and the last mackerel cannery in California closed in 1992. Today, managers continue to actively manage the fishery, although recent landings have been well below harvest guidelines – just over 1,300 metric tons in 2011.

Looking Ahead

Scientists believe that changes in environmental conditions greatly influence the abundance of coastal pelagic species such as Pacific mackerel. Oceanographic cycles that shift the Pacific Ocean between cool and warm water regimes trigger major population shifts for these species. Scientists are concerned about how climate change will affect the productivity of coastal pelagic species. NOAA and its partners operate the PACOOS program disclaimer to track how oceanographic fluctuations affect marine resources, including Pacific mackerel.



Off the west coast of North America, Pacific mackerel is found from southeastern Alaska to Mexico but is most common south of Point Conception, California. Pacific mackerel usually live within 20 miles offshore in water ranging from 50 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. When the population is small, they tend to occupy only the warmer part of their habitat. Juveniles live off sandy beaches, around kelp beds, and in open bays. Adults are found near shallow banks from the surface to waters almost 1,000 feet deep. Pacific mackerel often school with other pelagic species such as jack mackerel and sardines. As adults, they migrate north to Washington in the summer and south to Baja California in the winter; the northerly movement in summer is accentuated during El Niño events. They also travel inshore and offshore off California – they’re more abundant inshore from July to November and more abundant offshore from March to May.



Pacific mackerel grow fast, up to 25 inches and more than 6 pounds. They can live up to 18 years. Pacific mackerel are able to reproduce by age 4, and sometimes as early as age 1. They spawn at different times of the year, depending on where they live – Pacific mackerel spawn from late April to September off California; year-round off central Baja California, peaking from June through October; and from late fall to early spring off Cabo San Lucas. They spawn several times a year, releasing batches of almost 70,000 eggs each time. The eggs usually hatch within 4 to 5 days.

Pacific mackerel feed on plankton (tiny floating plants and animals) and the younger stages of all the pelagic species such as anchovy and sardine, as well as their own young. Various larger fish such as sharks and tunas, marine mammals, and seabirds eat Pacific mackerel. Pacific mackerel school as a defense against predators.



The body of the Pacific mackerel tapers at both ends. They have a pointy head and a large mouth. The head is dark blue, the back is dark blue with about 30 dark wavy lines, and the undersides are silver green. Pacific mackerel, bullet and frigate mackerel can be distinguished by counting the finlets on their back. Pacific mackerel typically have four to six finlets, whereas bullet and frigate mackerel have seven to eight.



Every year or two, NOAA Fisheries scientists assess Pacific mackerel to estimate their abundance. Managers use these estimates to establish a harvest guideline and other reference points such as annual catch limits for the Pacific mackerel fishery operating off the West Coast. The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted in June 2013 to amend the management and assessment schedule for Pacific mackerel. The new schedule calls for stock assessments every 4 years starting in 2015.



Pacific mackerel naturally experience “boom and bust” cycles of abundance, which is typical of other small pelagic species that have relatively short life spans and high reproduction rates. As of 2013, the Pacific mackerel stock is well above its target population level. However, in historical terms, the population remains at a relatively low abundance level, due primarily to oceanographic conditions.     


Harvesting Pacific Mackerel

Pacific mackerel are currently harvested in two U.S. fisheries: the commercial fishery that primarily operates out of southern California and a sport fishery based largely in southern California. Commercial fishermen use “round-haul” gear such as purse seines, drum seines, lampara nets, and dip nets to harvest Pacific mackerel. Bycatch is generally low in fisheries for coastal pelagic species, such as Pacific mackerel, because most vessels fishing for these species use roundhaul gear. This gear type targets and encircles a specific school of fish, which usually contains only one species. The most common incidental catch in this fishery is another coastal pelagic species (for example, Pacific mackerel can be caught along with Pacific sardines). Larger fish can usually be released alive by lowering a section of the net or using a dipnet.

While there is no directed fishery for mackerel in Oregon or Washington, small amounts (100 to 300 metric tons annually) are taken incidentally by whiting trawlers and salmon trollers. Catches in the Pacific Northwest peaked at 1,800 metric tons following a major El Niño event in 1997–1998.

Pacific mackerel is found all along the Pacific Coast of North America, so it is also fished commercially in Mexico and recreationally in Canada.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Current management: Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan.

  • Every year, NOAA Fisheries scientists are required to assess the Pacific mackerel stock and estimate their abundance.
  • The Pacific Fishery Management Council then uses this estimate to establish a harvest guideline for the Pacific mackerel fishery operating off the West Coast. The annual catch limit and harvest guideline apply to the upcoming fishing season for Pacific mackerel, which spans from July 1 to June 30.
  • The 2013-2014 annual catch limit has been set at 52,358 metric tons.

Total annual harvest of Pacific mackerel by the Mexico fishery is not regulated, but there is a minimum legal size limit of 255 millimeters. Mexico’s catch is either canned for human consumption or reduced to fish meal. The United States, Mexico, and Canada have not yet developed international management agreements for Pacific mackerel. However, efforts continue in terms of encouraging collaborative research and data exchange between the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center and researchers from Mexico’s academic and federal fishery management bodies. Cooperation is critical to providing a comprehensive assessment of this species across its entire range.


Annual Harvest

The commercial fishery for Pacific mackerel has changed considerably over the past two decades. In the 1990s, the fisheries off California had average annual landings of roughly 18,000 metric tons, whereas in the 2000s average yearly landings decreased substantially. In 2011 only 1,324 metric tons were harvested off California.



The 2011 catch from California was worth more than $300,000. Most of the mackerel are exported to Japan, the Philippines, and Malta for human consumption.



Recreational fishermen catch Pacific mackerel in California but seldom target them. The statewide recreational harvest makes up a small fraction (less than 5 percent in weight) of the total landings. California’s recreational catch of Pacific mackerel is included within the fishery harvest guideline, but there are no other restrictions on this fishery.



Pacific mackerel is a flaky, dark-fleshed fish with a rich, pronounced flavor. Mackerel is considered one of the more nutritious fish because it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids.



Year-round, but primarily in summer.



Pacific mackerel is a good source of riboflavin and vitamin B6, and a very good source of protein, niacin, vitamin B12, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g
Calories 158
Protein 20.07 g
Fat, total 7.89 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 2.247 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 47 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 86 mg

Pacific Mackerel Table of Nutrition



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