Fishery Council Weighs Protection of Vital Bait Fish Along U.S. Atlantic Coast

Bullet mackerel and frigate mackerel help sportfishing industry—and ecosystem—thrive

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Fishery Council Weighs Protection of Vital Bait Fish Along U.S. Atlantic Coast
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Sportfishing for strong, fast fish such as wahoo and blue marlin offers a unique thrill: trolling at high speeds, hunting an unseen animal, and—once a fish is on—locking in for a give-and-take battle that can test anglers to their physical limits. But without sound fisheries management that prioritizes sustainability, that excitement might not be around for future generations to experience. One element of that management is working to ensure these large game fish have enough to eat—something the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will consider at its quarterly meeting next week in Charleston, South Carolina.

The main dish: Bullet and frigate mackerel

Among the preferred meals for some of the prized game fish along the U.S. Atlantic coast are two lesser-known fish: bullet mackerel and frigate mackerel, sometimes referred to as bullet tuna and frigate tuna. These species are forage fish, meaning they are prey to higher-level predators throughout their lives. More than two decades of data from tournaments—including the Big Rock Tournament, one of the East Coast’s largest for wahoo, dolphinfish, blue marlin, and tuna—found that these forage species are the main food for wahoo and blue marlin. Wahoo in particular appear to favor these fish, with up to half of their diet made up of bullet and frigate mackerel. 

Unprotected and vulnerable

Like many forage species, bullet and frigate mackerel are not targeted by commercial fishing operations, though some are caught recreationally as bait. What threatens bullet and frigate mackerel is the risk that a high-volume commercial interest could suddenly turn to them.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council saw how quickly this can happen when the catch of chub mackerel, a relative of bullet and frigate mackerel, skyrocketed virtually overnight in 2013. During a poor year for squid availability, commercial trawlers turned to chub mackerel and, without any rules to protect the stock, increased landings from barely over 150,000 pounds to more than 5 million pounds in one year. The council then established a plan to manage the chub fishery and created rules to protect other unmanaged forage fish in the region from such an uncontrolled increase in catch.

If a similar scenario played out with bullet and frigate mackerel in the Atlantic, it could devastate the food web, including sought-after game fish, which is why the South Atlantic Council shouldn’t wait to develop rules to limit catch of these forage fish.

A proposed solution for the South Atlantic

Fortunately, the council is considering designating bullet and frigate mackerel as “ecosystem component” species in the fishery management plan for wahoo and dolphinfish, which the council refers to simply as dolphin in the plan. This would recognize that these species are vital prey for existing fisheries, and should be protected from sudden, extreme increases in landings.

Fishermen would still be able to catch bullet and frigate mackerel under this plan. As other councils have done, the South Atlantic Council could set limits at or around the current level of landings. But the rules would ensure that before any substantial increase in catch is approved, managers would consider how that might affect other species like wahoo and dolphinfish. Such an approach would protect the region’s interest in maintaining healthy fisheries for wahoo and other large gamefish and is consistent with the council’s recent commitment to consider the whole marine food web when setting fishing rules.

When the South Atlantic Council began soliciting public input on this approach earlier this year, it heard resounding support from fishermen, scientists, and the public. As one fisherman put it in an article in Sport Fishing magazine, “Establishing robust protections for keystone forage fish species does not have to be that complicated or elusive.” Marine scientist John Graves, who has served as chair of the U.S. Advisory Committee to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas for almost 25 years, enthusiastically supported the move in a letter to the council. Pew added its support alongside the many letters organizations and individuals submitted to the council.

Please join us in urging the council to protect bullet and frigate mackerel from overexploitation, which will help safeguard fish, fishermen, and ocean ecosystems. Submit your comments here.

Leda Cunningham is a manager and Lora Clarke is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect marine life on the U.S. East Coast.

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