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The fish and its habitat

"Kingfish are defined as coastal pelagics which means they do not normally roam the high seas like a true ocean pelagic.  Instead, kingfish migrate laterally along the coast.  The species Scomberomorous Cavalla is the king of the mackerel in Atlantic and Gulf waters, measuring as long as 5 feet and as much as 100 pounds.  They are a slender fish whose body is covered with tiny scales and a lubricating mucus which aids their movement through the water.  This 'slime' also protects the fish from infection.  

King Mackerel (Scomberomorous cavalla)
The following description is attributed to the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA)
Description: Color of back iridescent bluish green, sides silvery, streamlined body with tapered head, no black pigment on front of the first dorsal fin, lateral line starts high and drops sharply below the second dorsal fin, young fish often have yellowish spots like those of Spanish mackerel.

Other Common Names: Kingfish, King, Smoker, Slab, Hog
Size: Common to 20 pounds.
Range: Found near shore and offshore, occasionally taken from piers running into deep water.

Natural History: Schooling fish that migrates from south Florida waters in winter to more northerly waters in spring, Gulf population thought to be separate from Atlantic population, with considerable mixing in winter from Cape Canaveral past Key West, spawns in midsummer offshore, feeds on small fish and squid. 

The Fishery:

There is  great debate about the health of the King Mackerel fishery on both the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in 1999, classified kingfish in the Florida Gulf Coast region as 'over fished'.  The panel recommended a total allowable Gulf Coast catch of 10.1 million pounds for 99/00, following a year with a total catch of 9.83 million pounds - 3.6 million commercial and 6.23 recreational.  As you can see the recreational angler has a direct impact upon the sustainability of this species, accounting for 63.3% of the catch in Gulf waters and slightly more in South Atlantic waters.  According to government statistics the target optimum take of kingfish from Gulf waters is 30% SPR (spawning potential ratio), Gulf waters SPR take was at 28% SPR in 1999 with the Atlantic waters take at 54% SPR. The lower than optimal SPR indicates a less than optimal fishery in the Gulf.   Total catch  of South Atlantic kingfish was 7.09 million pounds 2.52 commercial and 4.57 recreational.  Its up to each of us to improve the health of both fisheries. Please obey the bag/size limits, catch ONLY what you eat/weigh and release the rest.  

Much of the debate regarding over-fishing is focused upon the growing number of recreational angler's participating in  coastal tournaments from Texas to the Carolinas.  The Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) is a primary sanctioning organization behind these events and is growing by leaps and bounds.  They also have a key role in the health of this fishery.  Through it member base of over 7,000 anglers  the SKA takes a prominent role in angler education, conservation as well as direct monitoring of the health of the fishery itself.

According to Louis Daniel, Chair of the South Atlantic Marine Fishery Council’s King and Spanish Mackerel Committee,  the current South Atlantic Management Plan for this species is "...absolutely a success story."  As Sam White - Editor of Angler Magazine  wrote in August of 2000; " Recently, the SAFMC has increased the TAC (Total Allowable Catch) for both the recreational and commercial fishermen throughout the Southeast, as well as increasing the size limit for kingfish". Mr. Daniel was reported to have said  "stock assessments have indicated a strong recovery of this fishery. As the stock has recovered we were able to increase the size limit for king mackerel to protect juvenile fish. Now the size limit allows the stock to remain in a healthy state, even in years of poor recruitment. Stocks have recovered to a point that the increase in the size limit for king mackerel to 24 inches has not affected harvest.”  

"So what does this really mean for us? Well, it means that tournament fishing for these silver speedsters has not significantly effected the overall stocks. Kingfish are a sustainable resource. We obviously are not “killing all the breeding females,” as some nay Sayers have criticized in the past. There are plenty of fish out there, swimming and migrating and breeding their little tails off.  Increasing the size limit protects the juveniles to ensure that they can spawn at least once in their lifetimes, thus protecting the stocks for the future even in the lean years. And the overall stock of kingfish shows no sign of slowdown any time soon."

The FishDancer fishing team has experienced our BEST ever season in the 2000 SKA - more than doubling our weigh in totals and increasing by 5 times our release numbers.  There seemed to be more fish, bigger fish, more consistently this season. Perhaps this is a cyclical normality, weather related, bait related or perhaps the fishery is continuing its return to health following the net ban and stricter size and bag limits.  In the 23' and under category for SKA division 5, our 3 fish  weigh in total of 62.6 pounds was good enough for 24th place overall....in 1999 it would have been a top 10 finish.  So anecdotally we are seeing more and bigger fish off the First Coast this year and hopefully when combined with the science of fishery management, we are tending to the fishery in a responsible manner.  As anglers we must be sure we understand our impact upon the resource. Anyone who has fished for these magnificent predators and released a healthy and vibrant fish to fight again knows the feelings of satisfaction and awe associated with this maintaining the resource.


THE FOLLOWING DATA IS DIRECTLY SOURCED FROM; http://www.epa.gov/gumpo/seast02.html#classification

Florida Department of Natural Resources Florida Marine Research Institute 100 Eighth Avenue, Southeast St. Petersburg, Florida 33701


KING MACKEREL

V. N. Stewart

Classification

In Florida, king mackerel are commonly known as kingfish or kings. They are classified in the Phylum Pisces, Class Osteichthys (bony fishes), Order Perciformes (perch-like fishes) and the Family Scombridae: marine spiny-finned fishes such as tunas, mackerels and bonitos.

The scientific name is Scomberomorus cavalla: Scomberomorus refers to spiny-finned marine fish; cavalla, derived from the Spanish word for horse, indicates large size.

Description

King mackerel is a slender fish only slightly compressed (flattened) from side to side. The entire body is covered with very small scales and a lubricating mucous which aids movement through the water and protects against infections.

Two dorsal fins are almost united and can fold back into a body groove to reduce drag as the fish swims. Short pectoral fins on each side of the body just behind the head, work like hydrofoils to aid maneuverability. Pelvic fins are on the belly, below the pectorals. Rows of small finlets extend from the dorsal and anal fins to the tail or caudal fin, which is deeply forked to further enhance speed. Two caudal keels or flattened ridges and a larger middle keel are on either side of the tail. The lateral line originates near the upper edge of each gill, drops sharply below the second dorsal fin, then undulates to the tail.

King mackerel teeth are large, triangular, and flattened from side to side in the large mouth. There may be from 40 to 60 teeth on each jaw.

Distribution/Habitat

King mackerel is a sub-tropical species of the Atlantic coast of the Americas. Common to the coastal zone from North Carolina to Brazil, the species occurs as far south as Rio de Janeiro, and occasionally as far north as the Gulf of Maine. Nonetheless, a preference for water temperatures exceeding 20 C (68 F) may limit distribution.

Throughout all stages of its life, king mackerel favors "ocean" salinities ranging from 32 to 36 parts per thousand.

King mackerel commonly occur in depths of 40 to 150 feet, where the principal fishery occurs. Larger kings (more than 20 pounds), however, can occur inshore, in the mouths of inlets, occasionally in bays and even at 600 foot depths along the edge of the Gulf Stream.

Distribution of king mackerel in the coastal zone varies seasonally. Off North Carolina, kings are abundant in spring and fall. In Florida, they are abundant north of Cape Canaveral only during the warm months; from Cape Canaveral to about Ft. Pierce, they are most abundant in December-March but may occur there during the warm months, too. From Jupiter Inlet to Miami, they are available year-round but are most abundant in January-March and May-August. In the Florida Keys, particularly around Key West, they are most abundant during winter months. They occur along the west Florida peninsula during spring and fall when they migrate to and from the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Similarly, in the northeastern Gulf from northwest Florida to Alabama, kings are most abundant during spring and fall and some are also available during summer. In the western Gulf off Texas, they are most available in spring and summer. Off the Louisiana coast, they are abundant during summer and again in winter. Fish exceeding 20 pounds apparently spend the entire winter off the Louisiana coast rather than migrating south.

Life History

Recent evidence indicates that the northwestern and northeastern Gulf of Mexico are major spawning areas for king mackerel. Very little spawning occurs along the west Florida peninsula. Along the east coast, spawning occurs in April-September, north of Miami. In recent studies, larvae have been captured off Georgia's coast in July and, in the summer months, in the high salinity waters over the outer half of the continental shelf and the continental slope off the Carolinas.

Eggs and sperm are shed into the sea and their union is by chance. A female may shed from 50,000 to several million eggs over the spawning season. Females probably do not spawn until their fourth summer, males are sexually mature in their third summer.

Fertilized eggs hatch in approximately 24 hours. The new hatch is a transparent larva about 0.1 inch long with a large yolk sack. Little is known about king mackerel during the first year of life.

Early growth rate is rapid. After the second year, females grow faster and become larger than males. Females also tend to weigh more than males of similar length. King mackerel may reach six feet in length and weigh up to 90 pounds. The life span for king mackerel is about 21 years for females and 19 years for males.

Migration

Tagging studies have been conducted by the Florida Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Results suggest that there are at least two migratory groups of king mackerel in the Atlantic and Gulf. However, recent information suggests the possibility of two separate stocks in the Gulf of Mexico. Geographic ranges of the Gulf and Atlantic groups overlap in south Florida between Cape Canaveral and Key West. The Gulf group appears to winter in south Florida and enter the Gulf in the spring. This movement may be limited to smaller members of the group, since larger (>20 pounds) king mackerel are present off Louisiana all winter.

Tagging of four to 15 pound fish off south Florida between Cape Canaveral and Key West/Naples during December-March demonstrated that the principal movement is gulf-ward in spring. Only a few of the tagged fish have ever been recaptured on the Atlantic coast north of Florida; some remain in south Florida during the warm months and maybe year-round. Similarly, tagging off Texas during summer demonstrated a movement into south Florida during winter.

By contrast, fish tagged off southeast Florida in the spring migrate mostly northward along the Atlantic coast during summer and fall; some were recaptured as far north as Virginia. Eight to 15 pound fish tagged off North and South Carolina are generally recaptured off Florida during May-August.

Feeding

King mackerel are voracious carnivores with powerful jaws and sharp teeth. They are opportunists, feeding on almost any available food, but favoring sardine-like fishes, jacks, sea- trout, cutlass fishes, shrimp and squid.

Fishing Gear and Methods/Regulations

King mackerel are among the most sought-after gamefish in Florida. They are taken on hook and line with various baits, including thread herring, Spanish sardine, cut mullet, shrimp and artificial baits. They not only challenge the angler but may provide him with a spectacular show, leaping from the water to fight the hook. In the commercial fishery, king mackerel are taken by trolling hook and line or with gill nets.

In U.S. waters, king mackerel fishing areas change with the seasons. Peak landings in south Florida occur in the winter and spring, and off northwest Florida in the Gulf of Mexico in summer and fall. On the east coast, the fishery is active south of Sebastian in December-March and then progresses northward in the summer and fall.

The catch fluctuates greatly from year to year, possibly due to a variety of factors: previous fishing pressure, variations in spawning success, available food supply and changes in water quality, temperature or salinity.

As of 30 June 1987, the National Marine Fisheries Service implemented rules in federal waters that allow annual changes in the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of king and Spanish mackerels. It also required permits for charter vessels fishing for king and Spanish mackerels and cobia. The use of purse seines for mackerels in the Gulf of Mexico is prohibited.

The apparent decline in king mackerel populations resulted also in an in-depth review of regulations by the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission. When king mackerel fishing is open in state waters, the minimum size limit is 12 inches and the recreational bag limit is two kings per person per trip (January 1989)  (editor's note; current regulations have a 24" minimum size and 2 fish/angler bag limit). Fishermen should check with authorities frequently for current harvesting regulations governing the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico groups of king mackerel. However, when the annual pre-set catch quotas are reached, the total recreational bag limit will be reduced to one. Always confirm with the Florida Marine Patrol in your area regarding the current status of king mackerel fishery regulations. Closures can occur on short notice. The goal of these measures, though sometimes an inconvenience, is to stabilize the population and ensure its survival. Without the cooperation of each fisherman, this valuable resource could be lost - forever.

Farming Potential

King mackerel are restless, roving fish, difficult to keep in captivity, hence they are not a likely prospect for aquaculture.

Nutrition and Processing

King mackerel are marketed either fresh or frozen. They may be sold fresh as fillets, steaks or in the round (whole). Most of the frozen catch is exported.

Nutritionally, kingfish provide vitamins A, B-1, B-2 and niacin, plus calcium and phosphorous. High in protein and relatively low in calories, they are an excellent nutritional investment. They are low in sodium and have few bones. Known as a "fat" fish, they are best prepared by broiling, baking or smoking.

Economic Importance

In the ten years from 1977 through 1986, Florida commercial king mackerel landings averaged approximately 5.5 million pounds (Table 1, page 7). Annual catches ranged from 3.4 million pounds in 1985, valued dockside at 4.4 million dollars, to 9.1 million pounds in 1977, valued at 3.7 million dollars. Landings of king mackerel tend to be higher on the east coast than for the west coast.

Recreational landings averaged approximately 4.21 million pounds (1979 to 1987) on Florida's east coast and 2.41 million pounds from the Gulf coast (Table 2, page 7). Catches from the recreational fishery tend to be similar or slightly higher than commercial landings (Table 1).

Similar Species in Florida

Spanish mackerel and cero are also important Florida fisheries. Spanish mackerel have been fished commercially since the late 1800's and were a mainstay of early Florida fisheries. Descriptions of the three Scomberomorus species occurring in Florida waters are listed.

King mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla)

  • Slender fish with upper sides and back greenish to bluish, lower sides and belly gray to silver. Young king mackerel have pale yellow spots with ill-defined borders on their sides.

  • No scales on pectoral fins.

  • Lateral line curves sharply downward below the second dorsal fin.

  • Largest of the three species, up to 6 feet long and 90 pounds.

  • Six to eight gill rakers and 15 to 16 dorsal spines.

Spanish mackerel (Scomberomorus maculatus)

  • Elliptical shape with upper sides and back greenish grading to silver on lower sides and belly. Irregular rows of orange to yellow oval spots with well-defined edges.

  • No scales on pectoral fins.

  • Lateral line has no sharp drop below second dorsal fin.

  • Size: up to 4 feet long and 20 pounds.

  • 13 to 15 gill rakers and 17 to 18 dorsal spines.

Cero (Scomberomorus regalis)

  • Shape oblong with upper sides and back dark blue to green, fading to silver below. Several rows of orange to brown elliptical spots on sides. In one row, the spots join to form a brown or black lateral stripe.

  • Pectoral fins have scales.

  • Lateral line is curved less sharply than on king mackerel.

  • Size: May exceed 30 pounds.

  • 15 to 18 gill rakers and 17 to 18 dorsal spines.

Table 1. Florida king mackerel commercial landings (in pounds), 1977-1988

                                                      
                EastCoast     WestCoast      Undetermined                       State Total   
      1977      3,914,789     5,216,879                                             9,131,668
      1978      3,401,502     1,745,191                                              5,146,693
      1979      3,346,314     1,691,259                                              5,037,573
      1980      3,073,162     3,001,601                                              6,074,763
      1981      4,857,893     3,073,005                                             7,930,898
 
 5 yr. average  3,718,732     2,945,587                                          6,664,319
 
      1982      4,647,396     1,967,798                                             6,615,194
      1983      3,107,989     1,339,609                                              4,447,598
      1984      2,436,652     1,094,725                                             3,531,377
     *1985      2,586,865       492,742                                            3,080,205
      1986      2,327,858     1,641,173                                              4,127,661
 
 5 yr. average  3,039,961     1,320,326                                          4,360,407
10 yr. average  3,379,346     2,132,957                                         5,512,363
 
      1987      2,572,632       542,294         437           3,115,363
    **1988      2,236,292       108,416         128          2,344,836
 
 2 yr. average  2,404,462       325,355                                           2,730,099
 

*Prior to 1985, landings statistics taken from U.S. Department of Commerce, Florida Landings, Annual Summaries; from 1985 on, data collected by Department of Natural Resources, Florida Marine Research Institute.

** Preliminary data.

Table 2. Florida king mackerel recreational landings (in pounds), 1977-1988

              East Coast(1)  West Coast(2)     State Total
      1979        3,106,600      2,885,800       5,992,400
      1980        9,053,860      5,168,520      14,222,380
      1981*       1,976,000*     3,936,380*      5,912,380*
      1982        5,754,560      2,464,200       8,218,760
      1983        4,875,600      1,276,800       6,152,400
      1984        5,191,940      1,862,000       7,053,940
      1985        4,392,500      1,091.010       5,483,510
      1986        1,810,857      1,099,163       2,910,020
      1987        1,760,249      1,914,318       3,674,567
9 year average    4,213,574      2,410,910       6,624,484
 
(1) Using mean weight from Type A catch, by year, from the Marine 
    Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey for South Atlantic   
    Region.  
(2) Using mean weight from Type A catch, by year, from the Marine 
    Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey for Gulf region.

* Includes March 1981 through December 1981 only