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King Mackerel

Scomberomorus cavalla

Illustration of King Mackarel

Also Known As

  • Cavalla
  • Sierra

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

Population

Above target population levels.

Fishing Rate

At recommended levels.

Habitat Impacts

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

Bycatch

Bycatch is low because hook-and-line and gillnet gear is selective.

  • Availability

    Year-round.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught from New York to Texas. The majority of commercial catch is from the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Taste

    King mackerel has a rich, pronounced flavor. For a milder flavor, cut out the outer bands of dark, strong-tasting meat along the midline.

  • Texture

    Flaky and moist.

  • Color

    Raw mackerel is grayish and oily. When cooked, mackerel is off-white to beige in color.

  • Health Benefits

    King mackerel is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in fat, and a very good source of protein, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, and selenium. More information on health and seafood.

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils manage the king mackerel fishery.
  • Managed under the Fishery Management Plan for the Coastal Migratory Pelagic Resources in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Region:
    • Commercial fishermen must have a permit to harvest king mackerel.
    • The number of available permits is limited to control fishing pressure on king mackerel.
    • Annual catch limits divided between the commercial and recreational fisheries for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks.
    • Seasonal and per-fishing-trip limits.
    • Minimum size limit to allow fish time to mature and spawn.
    • Seasons for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks. Seasons or areas can close early if quotas are reached.
    • Gillnets are prohibited in Florida state waters. They are also prohibited in federal waters, except seasonally in certain areas.
    • State regulations are fairly consistent with federal regulations.

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2015, commercial landings of king mackerel totaled more than 4.9 million pounds and were valued at approximately $10 million.
    • A large fraction of the commercial catch is harvested from the “winter mixing zone” in South Florida, which includes Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic waters.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • Most commercial fishermen use hook-and-line gear such as handlines, rod-and-reel, and troll gear. Gillnets are also allowed in limited areas.
    • Hook-and-line and gillnet gear have minimal impact on habitat because they do not contact the ocean floor.
    • Fishing gear used to harvest king mackerel is very selective, so the fishery has little bycatch.  
  • Recreational fishery:
    • King mackerel is a large, aggressive fish that is popular with recreational fishermen and makes up a large part of the total harvest.
    • King mackerel support a valuable tournament fishery.
    • Recreational management measures include:
      • Minimum size limits.
      • Bag limits.
      • King 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.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the 2014 stock assessment, the king mackerel stock in the Atlantic is not overfished and is not subject to overfishing.
  • According to the 2014 stock assessment, the king mackerel stock in the Gulf of Mexico is not overfished and is not subject to overfishing.
  • Prior to the 1980s, king mackerel fisheries were essentially unregulated and became depleted. Regulations were implemented in 1983 to control harvest and rebuild declining stocks of king mackerel, and today these stocks have been restored to target population levels. 

Location

  • King mackerel are found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Brazil, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Habitat

  • King mackerel 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.
  • They prefer warm waters and seldom enter waters below 68° F.
  • King mackerel migrate with seasonal changes in water temperature and with changes in food availability.
  • They migrate to the northern part of their range in the summer and to the southern part in the winter, swimming in large schools.
  • Both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks congregate in a winter mixing zone in an area of Monroe County, Florida, south of the Florida Keys, between November and March.

Physical Description

  • 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.

Biology

  • King mackerel grow fast, up to 5 ½ feet and 100 pounds.
  • They can live more than 20 years.
  • They are able to reproduce when they reach 2 years of age.
  • There are 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 grow much larger than males, an evolutionary strategy that maximizes the amount of eggs that a female can produce. Females can produce 50,000 to several million eggs.
  • King mackerel are carnivores, feeding 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 dolphins and large fish, such as sharks and tunas, feed on adult king mackerel. 

Last updated: 09/20/2018