Back in 1953, one of the founding directors of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute described bluefish as “perhaps the most ferocious and bloodthirsty fish in the sea, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and mangled mackerel, menhaden, herring, alewives, and other species on which it preys.”
Bluefish look the part of an apex predator, with a long, slender, streamlined body, menacing yellow eyes and a piranha-like set of teeth, leading anglers to call them “choppers” or “alligators.”
They are brutally aggressive animals, perhaps more so than any other fish in the ocean. They can often be witnessed tearing up and disfiguring baitfish even after they are clearly full, and regurgitating the remains of what they had previously eaten. Almost as if such killing is simply fun for them.
It is precisely these characteristics that make them a highly valued species to the recreational fishing community. Violent and voracious feeders, they will almost always smash a popper or other plug pulled across the surface in their vicinity, usually in spectacular fashion. Once hooked, they fight with strength and speed, often leaping out of the water.
While it certainly varies from year to year, they are generally available in good numbers in the bays and estuaries, and large schools can often be found under birds along the coast. The feeding frenzies that occur when schools of bluefish find shoals of baitfish are often breathtaking.
During most years the 6- to 8-inch juveniles (aka snappers) flood the canals and local marinas in July and August, bringing enormous joy to those 5- to 9-year-old kids who target them with their first rod/reel combos.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why bluefish are predominantly a recreationally-caught species. Recreational harvest has accounted for around 80% of removals in recent years. They are actually the second most recreationally harvested species behind striped bass.
Yet, it’s pretty clear that the recreational community does not value them primarily for their eating quality. In fact, while opinions vary, most anglers choose not to eat them. They are considered oily and “fishy” tasting by most, although that’s likely due to the fact that folks don’t prepare them right, or fail to eat them right away, as quality degrades with the number of days, arguably number of hours, that the fish are left on ice.
Amongst the angling community, bluefish are primarily valued not as food, but simply for the opportunity to interact with these aggressive animals.
In recent years, both total numbers and the proportion of fish released alive by anglers has increased significantly. Around 20% were released alive from 1981-1985, while around 65% were released alive from 2010-2014. Bluefish released by anglers are assumed to have a 15% discard mortality rate.
As mentioned, the general perception is that bluefish are of poor eating quality given their oily, fishy nature. If they are not kept fresh and eaten quickly their quality further deteriorates. Although there is indeed a market for them, it is not a particularly lucrative one.
The relative value of bluefish is very low among commercially landed species, approximately 0.07% of the total value of all finfish and shellfish landed along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Average coast-wide price of bluefish was $0.74 per pound in 2015, during the prior year it was only a little above $.60 a pound.
Currently, the commercial fishery is managed under a state quota system. Landings since 2005 have ranged between 4.5 and 7.1 million pounds, three-quarters of which were landed in New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Commercial fishermen target bluefish primary via rod and reel and gill net, although they are also caught, via trawl, haul seines and pound nets.
Range and Biology
Bluefish are found in most temperate oceans throughout the world, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific. In the Western North Atlantic they range from Nova Scotia to Bermuda, and all the way to Argentina. Yet they appear to be most abundant in the Mid-Atlantic from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod.
Bluefish generally travel in schools of similar-sized individuals. In the Mid-Atlantic, they migrate seasonally, moving north in the spring and summer then south and offshore in the fall, inhabiting waters offshore of Cape Hatteras and south.
They are fast growers, generally reaching sexual maturity by age two (approximately 14 inches), yet they can live up to 12 years, reach a weight of up to 30 pounds and grow to lengths up to 40 inches.
Bluefish spawn offshore from Massachusetts through Florida. Discrete groups spawn at different times. There are spring, summer and fall-spawned cohorts, demonstrating a prolonged spawning season, hedging against spawning failure of any one cohort. While spring-spawned bluefish appear to be the dominant cohort, all three cohorts mix extensively inshore and likely comprise a single genetic stock.
What do they eat? Well, pretty much anything and everything that moves. What drives bluefish blitzes, however, are concentrations of menhaden, squid, mackerel, butterfish, silversides and bay anchovies. Although, they can often be seen chomping on scup, weakfish, black sea bass, founder, juvenile striped bass, etc. as well. The general rule of thumb with bluefish: if it swims, they’ll eat it.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) work cooperatively to develop regulations for bluefish off the east coast. Council and Commission work in conjunction with NOAA Fisheries, which serves as the federal implementation and enforcement entity.
Such a cooperative management endeavor was developed because a significant portion of the catch is taken from both state waters (0-3 miles offshore) and federal waters (3-200 miles offshore, also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ).
The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) reviews the best available science as well as fishery performance reports, and determines the Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) for the upcoming year. The Council’s Bluefish Monitoring Committee develops and recommends specific coast-wide management measures (commercial quota and recreational harvest target) that will achieve the catch target and makes further adjustments to total catch as needed based on management uncertainty.
Finally, the Council and Board meet jointly to develop recommendations to be submitted to the NOAA Fisheries.
FMP and Recreational to Commercial Quota Transfers
The Bluefish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) was implemented in 1990 and established the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s management authority over the fishery in federal waters. The entire management unit for bluefish is the U.S. waters in the western Atlantic Ocean.
Amendment 1 to the FMP, implemented in 2000, addressed stock rebuilding and created the Bluefish Monitoring Committee, which meets annually to make management recommendations to the Council.
Amendment 1 allocated 83% of the resource to recreational fisheries and 17% to commercial fisheries based on catch history from 1981 to 1989. The commercial fishery is controlled through state-by-state quotas based on the same 1981-1989 base years, while the recreational fishery is currently managed using a 15-fish bag limit.
What is unique about the Bluefish FMP, however, is its allowance of quota transfer between recreational and commercial fishery.
If the recreational fishery is projected to not land its entire allocation for the upcoming year, the recreational underage can be transferred to the commercial quota, as long as it doesn’t exceed 10.5 million pounds.
This has been a point of contention with the angling community. There are many anglers who don’t appreciate such “use it or lose it” rules as they tend to discourage conservation. In other words, such unused quota transfer tends to create the perception that if anglers don’t kill them, the commercial fishermen will get them. In the case of bluefish, which are valued to a large extent for their fight, and not their eating qualities, most are released, presumably so that anglers can catch those same fish another day. However, this doesn’t work if those fish released are simply allocated to the commercial side.
The latest benchmark assessment, using data up to 2014 and peer-reviewed in 2015, indicates that bluefish are not overfished and that the stock is not currently experiencing overfishing.
However, the assessment did indicate a lowering spawning stock biomass. Right now, bluefish are not quite at the target where they should be, but they are not below the threshold for management action either. Thus, the Council decreased the Acceptable Biological Catch by 10% for 2016 and 2017.