Known for its voracious appetite, distinctive flavor, and unique bluish-green coloration, bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) are a pelagic species of marine fish found in temperate and sub-tropical coastal waters throughout the world. Depending on where it’s caught, this prized game fish is referred to by a variety of names — including shad, tailor, elf, blue, lufer, chopper, and anchoa. United States fisheries are responsible for the majority of the bluefish found at market throughout the world. According to the FDA’s Seafood List, “bluefish” is the only acceptable market name for the species.
Morphology and Behavior
With a streamlined form, a broad forked tail, pointed snout, and prominent jaw with condensed razor-sharp teeth, bluefish are formidable hunters that are capable of large bursts of speed and incredible precision. As the only pelagic fish that can turn its head from side to side without having to shift its entire body, bluefish are extremely effective at capturing their prey. A typical bluefish diet includes small baitfish such as mackerel and herring, as well as crustaceans and marine worms. Menhaden, a rich oily baitfish that serves as a staple of the adult bluefish’s diet, ultimately contributes to the rich and moist flavor that characterizes bluefish fillets. Bluefish travel in large schools — sometimes reaching sizes that can cover tens of square miles of ocean. When feeding, the voracious appetites and high bursts of speed can make these schools of bluefish erupt in utter chaos — a behavioral pattern that has been named the “bluefish blitz.” This somewhat frantic feeding behavior can be seen on the surface of the water, resembling the churning of a washing machine or an isolated storm. The commotion will often attract seabirds and other creatures to the area, which can result in quite a show for those lucky enough to witness it. Despite their perfected hunting skills, these aggressive hunters are not at the top of the food chain. Sharks, tunas, and billfish often prey on adult bluefish. And like their migratory predators, bluefish shift with water temperatures throughout the year. Off the Atlantic coast, bluefish can be found from Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in the warmer summer months. During the cooler winter months, the species transitions southward, ranging from Cape Hatteras down to the coast of Florida. The lifespan of these fish is moderately long, with healthy fish living as long as 14 years. Bluefish reach maturity at two years or 15 to 20 inches, and their maximum size is about 39 inches or 31 pounds.
Fisheries & Management
Both commercial and recreational fisheries for bluefish can be found throughout the world. The most significant of these fisheries can be found right here on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., where fishermen have been hunting bluefish for hundreds of years. The seasonality of these fisheries aligns with the migratory patterns of the species. Recreational fisheries are most prominent, accounting for 70% of the catch in total pounds of bluefish over the past 20 years in the U.S. This makes bluefish the second most harvested recreational game fish in the mid-Atlantic, second only to striped bass. Rod and reel is the primary fishing method used by recreational fishermen targeting bluefish, while commercial fishermen catch them using gillnets, long lines, and trawl nets. When caught, these fish must be handled carefully due to their sharp teeth and quick movements.
In the 1970s, developing markets for bluefish in South America and Africa increased commercial fishing pressure on the stocks to unprecedented levels. Concerned over the health and overall sustainability of the stock, recreational fishermen in the United States petitioned the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council to formalize a management plan for this unregulated species. Although the first push to formalize a management plan was unsuccessful, subsequent efforts in collaboration with the New England and South Atlantic Fisheries Management Councils, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council ultimately culminated in an official management plan for the entire Atlantic fishery in 1990. Despite some setbacks in the mid-1990s, the stock was fully rebuilt to historic levels under this fisheries management plan by 2007, three years ahead of the anticipated schedule. The stock remains strong today due to continued collaborative efforts among these many regulatory bodies, with total species biomass above target population levels.
Sold fresh or smoked, the United States provides most of the bluefish available at market. With a full, rich flavor, this coarse, moist meat can be prepared in a variety of interesting and creative ways. Generally speaking, the larger the fish, the more rich and pronounced its flavor. This relates back to the fish’s diet — younger fish tend to feed mostly on crustaceans, giving their meat a sweet flavor, while older fish prefer menhaden, the oily baitfish that lends a more rich and distinct flavor. Due to its high oil content, bluefish smokes exceptionally well and is well-suited for use in a pâté. Aside from its distinctive taste, bluefish are an excellent source of many vitamins and nutrients, including selenium, niacin, and vitamin B12, as well as magnesium and potassium. Since these fish are extremely active predators consistently feeding on whatever is around, they contain strong digestive enzymes that can contribute to the deterioration of the bluefish’s fillets once prepared for market. Bluefish also contain elevated histamine levels, and therefore require strict time and temperature controls as regulated here in the U.S. by the FDA. It is not typical to see frozen bluefish at market or to sell it in locations that are far from where it is caught due to its relatively short shelf life.
As bluefish return to New England each summer, Turner’s Seafood highlights bluefish on its menu and makes it available for sale at the markets in Melrose and Gloucester. We hope that you will come by and visit us at one of our locations to see what this versatile and flavorful fish has to offer.
Photo 1, www.jrusseljinishiangallery.com
Photo 2, www.encyclopedia.com
Photo 3, www.wikipedia.com