The bluefish, a trophy species hotly pursued by anglers due to
it's reputation as a champion battler and voracious predator,
is native to both the American and European-African coasts of
the Atlantic Ocean. Along the western Atlantic it is abundant
from Argentina to Cape Cod, and it occasionally occurs as far
north as Nova Scotia.
Bluefish is something of a misnomer, as this species is most
commonly a sea-green color above, fading into a silvery shade
on its lower sides and belly. The adult bluefish has a stout body
and large mouth that extends posteriorly below and beyond the
eye. The lower jaw juts out noticeably. Both the upper and lower
jaws are fully armed with large conically shaped canine teeth.
The dorsal fin is divided into two sections. The first section,
about half as long and high as the second, has a series of stiff
spines supporting the soft tissues of the fin. The second or posterior
dorsal fin is equal in length to the anal fin.
Bluefish rarely exceed 20 lbs. and 40 inches in length. The North
American record bluefish, caught in North Carolina, weighed 31
lbs 12 ounces. The Massachusetts record fish, landed at Graves
Light in 1982, weighed 27 pounds 4 ounces. The larger fish caught
during a given year generally run between 10-15 pounds.
Both male and female bluefish reach sexual maturity by the time
they are 2 years old. The fecundity (number of eggs produced)
of females is related to their size, with 21-inch female producing
about 900,000 eggs and a 23-inch female about 1,100,00 eggs per
Bluefish inhabit both inshore and offshore areas of coastal
regions, with young of the year fish (those in the first year
of life), called "snappers", often frequenting estuaries
and river mouths.
This species normally travels in large schools, which may contain
up to several thousand individuals. One unusually large school
sighted in Narragansett Bay in 1901 was estimated to be spread
over a 4-5 mile distance.
Bluefish display an annual migration pattern that is keyed to
the seasonal warming and cooling of coastal waters. They begin
arriving along the southern New England coast during April and
May. The earliest catches in southern Massachusetts waters occur
in mid-May, but substantial numbers of fish typically do not arrive
before Memorial Day. Two to 4 pound fish generally arrive first
in Massachusetts waters, moving into harbors and estuaries in
great numbers. Larger fish arrive somewhat later in the spring,
initially inhabiting deeper waters but moving progressively shoreward
into shallow areas as the summer progresses. Adult bluefish largely
disappear from coastal waters of southern New England during October
as water temperatures cool to 60 degrees F. Adults may occasionally
stray far southward during the winter; one bluefish tagged off
the coast of New York was recaptured in January three years later
off the coast of Cuba. Although many adult fish migrate southward
in the fall, their major migratory movement appears to be offshore
toward the warmer, deep waters of the continental shelf.
Bluefish occurring between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and
New England spawn between June and August. Spawning occurs primarily
offshore over the continental shelf when water temperatures warm
to between 64 and 74 degrees F. After hatching, larvae inhabit
surface waters and are swept along the continental shelf by prevailing
currents. The number of offspring surviving to enter the population
in a given year is influenced by the circulation patterns of currents
on the continental shelf. If larvae move shoreward to suitable
habitats, many survive; if they are moved further away from shore
off the continental shelf, high mortality caused by starvation
Snappers eat a variety of small-bodied animals such as copepods,
shrimp, small lobsters and crabs, larval fish and larval mollusks.
Adult bluefish are opportunistic feeders, commonly focusing upon
schooling species such as menhaden, squid, sand eels, herring,
mackerel, and alewives, as well as scup, butterfish, and cunners.
Bluefish generally feed in schools, actively pursuing prey in
tidal rips or inshore shallows where food is easier to catch.
The feeding behavior of this species is legendary. Bluefish are
reputed to dash wildly about within schools of prey species, biting
crippling, and killing numerous small fish that do not get eaten.
They frequently drive schools of prey species into the shallow
inshore areas where it becomes easier to cripple or catch fish
that are trying to escape. Occasionally, during particularly frenzied
feeding activity, schooling fish such as menhaden will literally
be driven to shore, leaving a number of fish beached along the
wave line. Although this occurs relatively infrequently, an occasional
beach littered with dead fish has given rise to the bluefish's
exaggerated reputation as a vicious predator.
In New England waters, the bluefish has a long history of
periods of abundance interspersed with periods of scarcity. Records
from Colonial times indicate that bluefish populations collapsed
from high to low densities in New England during the mid-18th
century. Similarly, the number of bluefish was greatly reduced
along the north shore of Massachusetts Bay twice between the mid-19th
and 20th centuries. Bluefish south of Cape Cod Bay showed a pattern
of high densities prior to 1930, low densities from that time
to the mid-1940s, and a rebound to high densities by 1950.
These cycles of abundance and scarcity, typical throughout the
east coast, are greatly influenced by annual reproductive success
and the survival of offspring.
In recent years, the total harvest by recreational anglers (which
is typically at least 90% of the total fishing harvest) has been
reasonably stable, although a 40% decline in angler harvest occurred
from 1980 and 1984. Snapper and 1-year-old bluefish have dominated
recreational catches since 1979, and fish over 8 years of age
have been landed only rarely during the same time period. The
number of reproductively mature fish has declined 55% since its
most recent peak in 1979, dropping the estimated number of adults
coastwide to a level similar to that of the mid-1970s. The current
fishery is being harvested at or slightly above a level that bluefish
populations can sustain.