Whither the mackerel of spring?


March 13, 1994|By PETER BAKER

For many years, a rite of late winter and early spring for anglers along Maryland's Atlantic coast was a headboat trip offshore for Atlantic mackerel. For the past few years, the spring trips have been less than spectacular, and last year the mackerel run never developed.

This year, almost midway into March, the mackerel are still absent.

Vaughn Anthony, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Scientific Center in Woods Hole, Mass., said Friday that although the mackerel have been coming inshore less predictably in recent years, the coastal population is still in // great shape.

"We have over 2 million metric tons of Atlantic mackerel out there," Anthony said. "So the population is very healthy."

But, Anthony said, among the things the NMFS does not know about the Atlantic mackerel is what has caused them to change their migratory pattern over the past few years.

Atlantic mackerel, also known as Boston mackerel, are spread from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras and range from the inner third of the Continental Shelf to the western edge of the Gulf Stream.

In traditional years, the mackerel move inshore as the water warms and prepare to spawn randomly as their eggs ripen, with the peak of the spawn coming in late May and early June off Massachusetts Bay.

"In the spring, they typically come inshore and move northward," said Anthony. "But in probably the last four or five years, they haven't come in that well [throughout their range]. It is a problem, and we don't know the answer to it."

Among the variables to be considered are water temperature, water quality and food sources.

Given the cold winter this year and the cold, wet conditions of late winter and early spring last year, it would seem that perhaps water temperature would be a key factor.

But Anthony said that it is hard to evaluate the impact of temperature on mackerel migration because the NMFS has higher priorities and determining mackerel abundance and location is largely a matter of surveys directed toward other fish.

"We are concerned with the mackerel because they are sometimes taken in great numbers when they move across the George Bank [below Nova Scotia]," Anthony said. "We are not concerned about the population because we know they are there in large numbers."

In the late winter and early spring, mackerel will be lying in waters warmer than 45 degrees and will move into waters between 60 degrees and 65 degrees to spawn.

The reports this year off the Maryland coast indicate that there are small numbers of mackerel being taken by commercial fishermen far offshore.

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