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What's Up in the Mackerel Fishery?

Mackerel is used as both food and bait in Maine and caught by commercial and recreational fishermen. There are some changes proposed to the mackerel fishery that may have important implications for those who harvest them and also for those who use them as bait. MCFA spoke with Carly Bari, Fishery Policy Analyst at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester, to ask for her help in sorting through the details of these proposed changes.

The most recent stock assessment showed that mackerel had not reached the target population set out in the 5-year rebuilding plan created by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) in 2019. The goal was to have a rebuilt Atlantic mackerel stock by 2023, but the most recent stock assessment, completed in 2021 showed that the stock was still overfished and that the stock wouldn’t be rebuilt by 2023.

Any number of factors may have contributed to the slower rate of rebuilding in the mackerel stock but, as Bari put it, “I don’t think anyone knows why the stock has been slow to rebuild, and that’s why rebuilding has been challenging. This is a revised plan because it was projected that it would be higher by now, but the last assessment showed that recruitment was below what was expected.”

How will the changes impact commercial fishermen?

As Bari noted, “Mackerel catch has been low for the past few years. Even though this (proposed action) will reduce quota for the coming year, the reduction isn’t unexpected and it may not end up changing how much is caught by much as compared to the previous couple of years.”

According to NOAA statistics, there were just over 1,000 small commercial boats that fished for mackerel between 2019 and 2022 and mackerel only accounted for 0.2-0.3% of their revenue. While the current rebuilding plan would reduce the quota by 41%, it would not impact a significant amount of fisheries revenue in total.

How about recreational fishermen?

Previously, restrictions on mackerel have not included recreational catch. These are boats that primarily catch mackerel to use as live bait for larger game fish like striped bass and tuna. They haven’t been included in the management measures in the past, but due to low levels in the stock, they will be this time. The proposal puts a limit of 20 fish per person per day in place.

“Since the commercial fishery has declined, recreational catch has become a larger part of the overall mackerel catch,” says Bari.

What are the other changes?

In the big picture, this action also modifies the fishery closure approach, which will be based on the amount harvested in metric tons as compared to a percentage of the quota, as it was in the past. Also, there will be a staged series of closures based on catch levels.

“The take home message is the goal of this approach is to allow as much mackerel fishing throughout as much of the year as possible,” says Bari.

What are the specifics?

Under the new plan, there would be two stages of “closures” depending on the level of catch and time of year. If the quota minus 886 metric tons is reached before May 1, or if the quota minus 443 metric tons is reached on or after May 1, there will be a closure. At that point, the trip limit will be reduced to 40,000 lbs for Tier 1, 2, and 3 limited access permits. Incidental and open access permits would be limited to 5,000 lbs per trip.

Once only 100 metric tons of the quota remain. At that point, all trip limits would be set at 5,000 lbs per trip.

Table 1. Proposed Atlantic mackerel commercial fishery closure approach.