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Atlantic Mackerel

Scomber scombrus

Atlantic mackerel

Also Known As

  • Mackerel
  • Common mackerel
  • Boston mackerel
  • Caballa

U.S. wild-caught Atlantic mackerel is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Population

Significantly below target population levels. A rebuilding plan is in place.

Fishing Rate

Reduced to end overfishing.

Habitat Impacts

Fishing gears used to harvest Atlantic mackerel have minimal impacts on habitat.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

    Year-round. Some is sold fresh in domestic markets, but most is frozen and exported to markets around the world.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught from Maine to North Carolina.

  • Taste

    Mackerel has a rich, pronounced flavor. For a milder flavor, cut out the outer bands of dark meat along the midline.

  • Texture

    Soft, flaky, and moist.

  • Color

    Raw meat looks grayish and oily. When cooked it is off-white to beige.

  • Health Benefits

    Mackerel is high in omega-3 fatty acids and is an excellent source of selenium, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12.

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • NOAA Fisheries and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council manage the Atlantic mackerel fishery.
  • Managed under the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan:
    • Mackerel are managed in federal waters. There are no state management measures for mackerel.
    • Managed using annual catch limits allocated between the commercial and recreational fisheries.
    • Managers monitor commercial catch on a weekly basis and will close the fisheries if the limits are reached before the fishing season is over.
    • Fishermen must have a permit to harvest Atlantic mackerel.
    • Managers limit the amount of available permits to control harvests.
    • Under a limited access program, permits are issued to qualifying fishermen, dividing fishermen into three tiers based on their past participation in the fishery. This program is designed to reduce the fishing capacity of the mackerel fleet while allowing qualified vessels to continue fishing for mackerel at their historical or recent level of participation.

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2018, commercial landings of Atlantic mackerel totaled more than 19.2 million pounds and were valued at more than $4.3 million. 
    • Commercial landings from 2004 to 2020 ranged from a high of 125 million pounds in 2006 to a low of 1.1 million pounds in 2011.
    • The U.S. commercial fishery for Atlantic mackerel operates primarily between January and May in southern New England and Mid-Atlantic coastal waters and between May and December in the Gulf of Maine.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • Fishermen harvest mackerel in large volumes using mid-water trawls.
    • Although mid-water trawls have minimal impact on habitat, they can incidentally catch marine mammals such as short- and long-finned pilot whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and common dolphins.
    • The Atlantic Trawl Gear Take Reduction Strategy provides measures to reduce potential impacts of bycatch. These include outreach to educate fishermen about actions to take in the event of a marine mammal interaction and efforts to communicate interaction hotspots to fishermen in real time. It also contains voluntary measures concerning fishing practices, such as reducing tow times and limiting turns while fishing.
    • The mackerel fishery has some incidental catch of river herring and shad. A cap was established in 2014 to limit river herring and shad catch in the mackerel fishery.
  • Recreational fishery:
    • Mackerel are important to recreational fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, with the highest landings occurring from Massachusetts to Maine.
    • In 2018, recreational harvest of Atlantic mackerel totaled more than 4.5 million pounds, most of which was caught in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. 
    • The recreational mackerel fishery is open all year, with a catch limit set annually at the same time as commercial limits.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the 2018 stock assessment, Atlantic mackerel are overfished, and are subject to overfishing.
  • Atlantic mackerel previously had an unknown status, but the 2018 stock assessment indicated the stock has been overfished for nearly a decade.

Location

  • Atlantic mackerel are found on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean, including in the Baltic Sea. In the western Atlantic, they’re found from Labrador to North Carolina.

Habitat

  • Atlantic mackerel are common in cold and temperate waters over the continental shelf. They swim in schools near the surface, and travel to and from spawning and summering grounds.

Physical Description

  • Atlantic mackerel are iridescent blue green on the back with a silvery white underbelly.
  • They have 20 to 30 wavy black bars that run across the top half of their body, and a narrow dark streak that runs below these bars along each side.
  • Their body is spindle-shaped, tapering at both ends.
  • Their two large dorsal fins are gray or dusky. The pectoral fins are black or dusky at the base, and the tail fin is gray or dusky.
  • Their distinctive coloring fades quickly after they die.

Biology

  • Atlantic mackerel grow fast, up to 16 ½ inches and 2.2 pounds.
  • They can live up to 20 years and are able to reproduce by the time they reach age 2 to 3.
  • There are two major spawning groups of Atlantic mackerel in the western Atlantic:
    • The southern group spawns primarily in the Mid-Atlantic Bight from April to May.
    • The northern group spawns in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June and July.
    • Both groups typically spawn 10 to 30 miles off shore.
  • Depending on their size, females can have between 285,000 and almost 2 million eggs. They release their eggs in batches, between five and seven times throughout the spawning season.
  • Eggs generally float in the surface water and hatch in 4 to 7 ½ days, depending on water temperature.
  • Atlantic mackerel feed heavily on crustaceans such as copepods, krill, and shrimp. They also eat squid, as well as some fish and ascidians (sac-like marine invertebrate filter feeders).
  • Several species of fish and marine mammals eat Atlantic mackerel.

Research

  • Scientists at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center collect information on Atlantic mackerel through their bottom trawl surveys. They research the abundance, biology, and distribution of Atlantic mackerel and other marine resources in the Northwest Atlantic. They use this information to assess the status of the Atlantic mackerel stock and provide recommendations to managers.
  • Atlantic mackerel are sensitive to changes in water temperature and migrate long distances on a seasonal basis to feed and spawn. NOAA Fisheries scientists have found that changing environmental factors have altered the distribution of Atlantic mackerel, shifting the stock northeastward and into shallower waters. These findings could have significant implications for U.S. commercial and recreational mackerel fisheries, which mostly occur during late winter and early spring.

Last updated: 03/23/2020