Atlantic Mackerel | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Atlantic Mackerel

Scomber scombrus

Also known as

Mackerel, split, joey, Boston mackerel

Distribution

Throughout the northern Atlantic; in the western Atlantic from Newfoundland & Labrador to Cape Hatte

Ecosystem/Habitat

Cold and temperate shelf areas

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomy

Order Perciformes (perch-like fish), Family Scombridae (mackerels, tunas and bonitos)

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Atlantic mackerel are a small, abundant forage fish that live across the Northern Atlantic. They have been fished recreationally, commercially and by Indigenous fisheries for hundreds of years. This species is easy to catch because of their annual migrations in towards shore. One community has even turned this into an annual event: a festival in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, called the “Mackerel Toss,” challenges participants to dress up as a fisher and try to toss the most mackerel into a bucket.

Atlantic mackerel have a slender, streamlined body that narrows towards a strongly forked tail. Their back has a bright, metallic-blue to green colour that becomes a lighter silver on the sides and white on their belly. They can be distinguished by dark, wavy vertical bars that start on their back and, like most other forage fish, have a protruding lower jaw. Atlantic mackerel have been recorded at 66 centimetres in length; however it is not common to find mackerel more than 50 centimetres long.

 

These abundant fish are oceanodromous, meaning they migrate throughout the ocean, heading to deeper waters in the winter and moving closer to shore in the spring. They are “batch spawners,” with females releasing eggs five to seven times during the spawning season. The eggs and larvae are “pelagic,” which means they are found in the open ocean, in the upper water column. 

Atlantic mackerel reach sexual maturity at two years of age, when they begin their seasonal migrations. They are estimated to live up to 12 years, and are a “diurnal” fish, meaning they are most active during the day. They feed mainly on zooplankton and small fish, but will consume prey such as squid and fish similar to their size as they get larger.

 

Atlantic mackerel is important for commercial and recreational fisheries. This species is caught using trawl, purse seine, weir, gillnet and hook-and-line. Atlantic mackerel are targeted mainly as a bait fish, and many lobster fishermen have licenses for them to use in their lobster traps. The species was heavily fished in the 1960s and 1970s, reaching historically high landings between 1970 and 1976. 

Following the introduction of Canada’s 200-nautical mile jurisdiction, landings declined as foreign boats were no longer allowed in Canada’s coastal waters. Although Canada’s Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for Atlantic mackerel is at a historical low, it is still eight times higher than scientific recommendations, meaning we are catching significantly more than is needed to maintain a healthy population. 

Atlantic mackerel harvested using purse seine are listed by most certifications as sustainable seafod. 

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has not yet assessed or listed Atlantic mackerel, however, they have been assessed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada under the Precautionary Approach Framework as Critical. Population estimates have proven difficult to determine due to the lack of swim bladders in Atlantic mackerel; a biological feature that is found in many other fish species and is necessary to conduct acoustic population surveys. Instead, Atlantic mackerel populations are estimated by analyzing egg surveys and commercial catch data. Egg survey indices, commercial landings in Canada, and those in the USA, just below the Canadian border, have all decreased significantly over the past decade or so, and the stock is currently believed to be overfished.

Oceana Canada is working to recover Canada’s fisheries, including Atlantic mackerel, find out more about our campaigns and join us in helping to bring abundance back to the ocean.