navigation

Spanish Mackerel

Scomberomorus maculatus

Spanish mackerel

Also Known As

  • Mackerel
  • Spotted cybium
  • Bay mackerel
  • Spotted mackerel

U.S. wild-caught Spanish 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 Spanish mackerel have minimal impacts on habitat.

Bycatch

Bycatch is low because hook-and-line, cast nets, and gillnet gear are selective.

  • Availability

    Year-round.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught mostly from Rhode Island to Alabama.

  • Taste

    Spanish 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

    Spanish mackerel is an excellent source of selenium, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12. It is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • NOAA Fisheries and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils manage the Spanish 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 Spanish mackerel in federal waters.
    • Annual catch limits are divided between the commercial and recreational fisheries for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks. The commercial allocation is 55 percent in the Atlantic and 57 percent in the Gulf of Mexico. 
    • Seasonal and per-fishing-trip limits.
    • Minimum size limit to allow fish time to mature and spawn.
    • Spanish mackerel must be landed with heads and fins intact in both the commercial and recreational fisheries.
    • Seasons for Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stocks. Seasons can close early if quotas are reached.
    • Prohibition on purse seine and drift gillnet fishing gear. 
    • Extends management area for Spanish mackerel through the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's jurisdiction (North Carolina to New York).
    • The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission works with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to coordinate management of Spanish mackerel fisheries in state waters to ensure they’re managed similarly to the fisheries in adjacent federal waters.

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2016, commercial landings of Spanish mackerel totaled 3.8 million pounds and were valued at $1.9 million.
    • Commercial landings of Spanish mackerel have generally been increasing in the Atlantic over the past decade.  
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • Commercial fishermen use cast nets, gillnets, and hook-and-line gear to harvest Spanish mackerel. Cast nets account for the majority of landings.
    • Spanish mackerel are caught in coastal waters at or near the surface, so fishing gear has minimal impacts on habitat.
    • Fishermen throw cast nets and set gillnets directly on schools of Spanish mackerel, so they rarely catch other species.
    • Hook-and-line fisheries for mackerel are selective and have little bycatch.
  • Recreational fishery:
    • In 2015, recreational harvest of Spanish mackerel totaled more than 2.4 million pounds.
    • Recreational catches of Spanish mackerel in the South Atlantic have remained stable while those in the Gulf of Mexico have decreased in recent years.
    • Spanish mackerel is an important species for recreational fishermen, who often use them as bait for big game fishing.
    • Recreational management measures include:
      • Minimum size limits.
      • Limits on the number of mackerel fishermen can catch. 
      • Spanish 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 2013 stock assessment, the Spanish mackerel stocks in the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico are not overfished and are not subject to overfishing.
  • Prior to the 1980s, Spanish mackerel were heavily fished by commercial and recreational fishermen, but the fishery was unregulated. Stocks were below target levels, so managers implemented regulations to manage fishing rates. Today the Spanish mackerel populations are above target population levels.
  • Fishing for Spanish mackerel has increased as fisheries for other species in the South Atlantic have become more restricted.

Location

  • Spanish mackerel is found off the Atlantic coast of the United States and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Habitat

  • Spanish mackerel mostly live in open water but are sometimes found over deep grass beds and reefs, as well as in shallow estuaries.
  • They prefer water temperatures above 68° F.

Physical Description

  • Spanish mackerel have a greenish back with silver sides and belly.
  • They are covered with very tiny scales.
  • They have yellow or olive green oval spots all over. These spots distinguish Spanish mackerel from cero mackerel, which have yellow-gold streaks along their midline.
  • Spanish mackerel can be distinguished from king mackerel by their smaller size and the absence of the lateral line that drops abruptly below the second dorsal fin.

Biology

  • Spanish mackerel grow fast, up to 13 pounds, and can live up to 12 years.
  • They are able to reproduce by age 2.
  • There are two distinct populations, one in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Atlantic.
  • They spawn from April to September off the North Carolina and Virginia coasts in the Atlantic Ocean and in shallow coastal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
  • Spanish mackerel release their eggs in batches throughout the spawning season. Females can have 500,000 to 1.5 million eggs over the spawning season. 
  • Spanish mackerel swim in large, fast-moving schools.
  • They migrate as the seasons and water temperatures change.
  • Along the Atlantic coast, Spanish mackerel spend the winter off Florida and move northward to North Carolina in early April and to New York in June. As waters cool later in the year, they return south to Florida waters.
  • In the eastern Gulf of Mexico, they migrate to the west of Cape San Blas, Florida. They remain in the northern Gulf of Mexico until September and migrate south along the coast in the fall.
  • Spanish mackerel prey primarily on herring, menhaden, sardines, mullet, needlefish, and anchovy and, to a lesser degree, shrimp, crabs, and squid. They are often seen forcing schools of small fish into tight bundles and nearly pushing them out of the water when feeding.
  • Dolphins and sharks prey on Spanish mackerel. 

Last updated: 09/20/2018