Bluefish (pomatomus saltatrix)

Bluefish is a coastal migratory, pelagic species found in most temperate and tropical marine waters throughout the world except the eastern Pacific.  They are distributed along the US Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida.

Bluefish migrate seasonally and can be found both inshore and offshore and as migration patterns show, prefer warmer waters.  In the spring and summer they move north as water temperatures warm where concentrations of bluefish can be found in waters from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the summer.  In the fall and winter, they move south to the waters of the South Atlantic Bight and are found offshore between Cape Hatteras and Florida in the winter.

Bluefish are moderately long living species and have a life span of up to 12 years.  They are fast growing and reach a maximum size of 31 pounds and 39 inches.  They mature at age 2 at a size between 15 and 20 inches.  Spawning occurs during spring and summer in the offshore waters of western North Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Florida.  There are discrete spawning groups that spawn at different times and are referred to by the season in which they spawn, i.e., the spring-spawned cohort and the summer-spawned cohort.  More recently, a fall-spawned cohort has been identified which demonstrates an expanded and prolonged spawning season.

During spawning, eggs are released into the open ocean.  Females release somewhere between 400,000 to 2,000,000 eggs, depending on the females size.  Larvae develop into juveniles near the surface in continental shelf waters, moving to estuarine and nearshore shelf habitats.  Juveniles prefer sandy bottoms but can be found inhabiting mud, silt, and clay bottoms.

Bluefish are sea green above and slivery on the sides and belly.  They have a pointed snout with a prominent jaw, and the upper and lower jaws are armed with a single series of stout, conical, canine teeth.  They have a large forked tail fin that pushes their stout and powerful body swiftly through the water.

Bluefish are voracious predators, over 70 species of fish have been found in their stomach contents.  They feed on squid and other fish such as menhaden, herring, alewife, mackerel, and silversides.  They travel in large schools and as recreational fishermen know and look for when out fishing, bluefish exhibit a feeding behavior called the “bluefish blitz” where large schools of big fish attack bait fish near the surface and churn up the water like a washing machine.  Because adult bluefish are fast swimmers, they don’t have many predators.  A few include sharks, tunas, and billfishes.  Juveniles bluefish are also preyed upon by oceanic birds.

The fishery

Bluefish in the western North Atlantic are managed as a single stock from Maine through Florida.

The majority of the landings of bluefish are from recreational fishing which is almost exclusively rod and reel gear.  In the commercial fishery, gillnets are the principal gear and account for approximately 40% of the commercial landings.  Other commercial gears used to harvest bluefish include hook and line and trawls.  Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, there is a localized fishery that used beach seines.

Who is in charge?

During the late 1970s a potential market for bluefish was developing in Africa and South America which started an interest with tuna purse seiners to consider harvesting bluefish.  Concerned over this, recreational anglers petitioned the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) to develop a management plan for bluefish.  The Bluefish FMP was developed in the 1980s and is the first management plan developed jointly by an interstate commission and Regional Fishery Management Council.  Today, bluefish are managed jointly by the MAFMC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries under the Bluefish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and more specifically under Amendment 1 to the FMP which was approved in October 1998 and implemented in 2010.

There is an annual quota set for the catch which is distributed between the commercial and recreational fisheries.  Amendment 1 to the Bluefish FMP set the commercial fisheries allocation to 17% of the quota and the recreational fisheries allocation to 83% of the quota.  The commercial quota is further divided into state specific quotas.  If there is unused recreational quota, this can be shifted to commercial fisheries.  Other management measures include minimum fish size, gear restrictions, permitting restrictions, recreational possession limit, recreational season, commercial season, etc.  Many of these are regulated on a state by state basis.

As part of the commercial quota, Framework Adjustment 1 to the Bluefish FMP established a procedure through which quota is set-aside to support research and data collection activities.  This research set-aside is determined each year and the MAFMC may designate between 0% and 3% of the bluefish allowable landings to be set-aside.  Other species that are part of this research set-aside program include Atlantic mackerel, black sea bass, butterfish, Illex squid, Loligo squid, scup, summer flounder, and tilefish.

Current regulations

The total commercial quota for bluefish allocated in 2011 was 9,375,204 lbs.  Each coastal state received a percentage of the overall quota.  In 2011, Rhode Island received 6.8081% or 638,273 lbs.

Also specific to Rhode Island, there is no minimum size limit in the commercial fishery and there are 2 seasons, from January 1 to June 30 and from July 1 to December 31.  There is an annual quota and a commercial trip limit which is currently unlimited (September 2011).  In the recreational fishery, there is no minimum size limit, no closed season but there is a possession limit of 15 fish/person/day.

Stock assessment

Biomass is a reference to the amount of fish in the ocean.  For bluefish, biomass peaked in 1982 but declined to a low by 1996.  There has been a steady increase since then and in 2009, the biomass was at 155,991 mt.  In 1990, the Bluefish FMP was implemented with the goal of stopping the decline of the stock and restoring the population to sustainable levels.  In 2001, a rebuilding plan was put in to place with a 9 year goal.  In 2009, bluefish were declared rebuilt and in the updated 2010 stock assessment for bluefish, the conclusion was the stock is not considered overfished or experience overfishing.

Landings have historically been dominated by the recreational fishery.  Commercial landings peaked in the early 1980s at 7,465 mt in 1981 then declined in the 1990s and were at 3,151 mt in 2009.  Recreational landings also peaked in the 1980s at more than 42,000 mt in both 1981 and 1985 and were 6,161 mt in 2009.

Videos of bluefish

Information for this article was taken from

  • Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. 2011. Species Profile: Bluefish, Joint Plan Rebuilds Premier Fighting Fish. ASMFC Fisheries Focus – Volume 20, Issues 2, April 2011.
  • Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and ASMFC. 1998. Amendment 1 to the bluefish fishery management plan. Publication of the MAFMC pursuant to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Award No. NA57C0002.
  • NOAA/NMFS Fish Watch. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/species/bluefish.htm, September 2011
  • Shepherd, G. 2006. Status of Fishery Resources off the Northeastern US – Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/sos/spsyn/op/bluefish/
  • Shepherd GR, Nieland J. 2010. Bluefish 2010 stock assessment update. US Dept Commer, Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 10-15; 33 p. Available from: National Marine Fisheries Service, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1026, or online at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/nefsc/publications/