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 year.
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 results.
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.
The greatest success in angling for snappers occurs from August through September. Fishing for adult bluefish generally improves through the summer as more fish start moving into inshore areas, and extends through October, after which waters cool and the fish migrate offshore and southward. Snappers are caught in estuaries and bays, and adults are caught along rocky or sandy shores and from boats. Many anglers prefer light spinning rods with less than 8 lb.-test line when fishing for snappers. When fishing for adults, the style of rod and line strength will vary depending upon whether one uses spinning or conventional gear to cast, troll or drift bait. Small swimming lures and drifted bait (silversides and sand eels) are frequently used for snappers or small adults. Anglers use a variety of plugs, sand eel-type jigs, and squid-like lures when casting or trolling for larger adults. Pogies, mackerel or eels are the preferred live baits. When theses are not available, many types of cut bait will also do well. Wire leaders are a must when bait fishing, in order to prevent a hooked fish from cutting the line with its sharp teeth.
Bluefish anglers fish from boats or shore along nearly every harbor entrance, town dock, beach and jetty in the state. Cape Cod and the Islands (Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket), the Cape Cod Canal (particularly Sandwich and Sagamore), the Boston harbor Islands, Marblehead, Manchester, Cape Ann up to Salisbury, Plum Island, and the mouth of the Merrimack River all attract a large number of anglers.
As with most fish, the quality of the flesh, and thus its flavor, will be best if the bluefish is gutted and iced as soon as possible after capture. The soft-textured bluefish flesh has a high oil content. When concentrated, fish oils can create a strong flavor that is not favored by many people. Bluefish fillets can be marinated in acidic foods such as vinegar, lemon or lime juices, or wine, or they can be cooked with fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and onions. These methods will lighten the flavor as well as retain the oils that confer the full health benefits associated with eating fish.
There are no commercial fishery reporting requirements to the Division of Marine Fisheries for bluefish, except through specific gear related catch reports such as those required to be completed by fishermen fishing gillnets and fish weirs. Federal permit holders may have to comply with federal reporting requirements.
Seafood dealers who wish to purchase bluefish directly from fishermen must hold a valid Massachusetts seafood dealer permit as well as submit a primary buyer and quota managed species application to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Buying bluefish directly from fishermen without prior authorization is strictly prohibited. Once a dealer becomes a primary buyer, there are reporting requirements that must be met.