Medium Pelagics

Northeast ecosystem component

Overview

The medium pelagics group is made up of striped bass and bluefish, both of which support important recreational fisheries and, to a lesser degree, commercial fisheries. Striped bass are an anadromous species, which means they migrate into freshwater to spawn. This occurs primarily in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, after which adults migrate to northern feeding grounds in the spring and summer. Bluefish spawning begins off of Cape Hatteras as early as May, and moves northward to Cape Cod as waters warm. Peak spawning for the species occurs in July and diminishes in the late summer1. After a planktonic stage offshore, bluefish juveniles recruit to estuaries and nearshore environments and are attractive targets for the recreational fishery. Bluefish, like striped bass, migrate northward as water temperatures warm.

 

Bluefish (Credit: NOAA)
Bluefish (seen above) are commonly found in coastal waters of the NE-LME, and migrate northwards as water temperatures warm in the spring and return south with cooling in the fall. Credit: NOAA

Gulf of Maine

Both bluefish and striped bass are rare in Gulf of Maine during the spring, as the two species move northward from the Mid-Atlantic during the late spring and summer as waters warm. As such, records of the two species in spring survey data in Gulf of Maine are sparse, although evidence for their presence in Gulf of Maine can be seen in the NEFSC fall bottom trawl survey. From the 1970s to early 1990s, bluefish were the dominant species of the two in terms of fall survey abundance. From the 1990s to early 2000s, striped bass became more prevalent in the Gulf, and then bluefish again were the largest contributors to biomass from 2006 to 2015.

Georges Bank

Similar to Gulf of Maine, bluefish and striped bass are rare in the offshore regions of Georges Bank during the spring survey. In fall survey data, bluefish were the most prevalent species from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s, when striped bass became more common in the survey. This trend lasted for around 10 years, and from about 2007 onwards, bluefish have again become dominant in terms of fall survey biomass.

Mid-Atlantic Bight

In the warmer waters of the Mid-Atlantic Bight, bluefish and striped bass are present in spring survey data. Striped bass are typically the most dominant contributor to medium pelagic biomass in the Mid-Atlantic during the spring survey, and appear to be increasing relative to bluefish biomass during the fall. This is because fall surveys suggest no change in bluefish abundance while striped bass are increasing, as the proportion of bluefish biomass in this group has significantly decreased since the mid-1970s. In the winter, larger bluefish remain in the Mid-Atlantic while smaller individuals move further south.


Next component

    1. 1. Smith W, Berrien P, Potthoff T (1994) Spawning patterns of bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, in the Northeast Continental Shelf Ecosystem. Bull Mar Sci 54:8–16

 

Bluefish (Credit: NOAA)
A large bluefish hauled out onto the deck. Credit: NEFSC/NOAA

Ecological Interactions

Bluefish and striped bass are primarily predators, although their eggs, larvae and juveniles are prey to other species. Adult bluefish have a diet composed mostly of other fish and squid1,2. Striped bass are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and inshore fish species, especially menhaden and river herring3. While bluefish and striped bass have the potential for competition for resources, particularly between juveniles which use the same estuaries, studies have shown that there is no evidence for such competitive effects4.

 

    1. 1. Buckel JA, Fogarty MJ, Conover DO (1999) Foraging habits of bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, on the U.S. east coast continental shelf. Fish Bull 97:758-775.

    2. 2. Fahay MP. 1999. Essential fish habitat source document: bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, life history and habitat characteristics. NOAA Tech Memo NMFS NE 144: 68.

    3. 3. Walter JF III, Overton AS, Ferry KH, Mather ME (2003) Atlantic coast feeding habits of striped bass: a synthesis supporting a coast-wide understanding of trophic biology. Fish Man Ecol 10:349-360.

    4. 4. Buckel JA, McKown KA (2002) Competition between juvenile striped bass and bluefish: resource partitioning and growth rate. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 234:191-204

 

Striped bass
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis). Credit: NEFSC/NOAA

Environmental Drivers

Water temperature is an important driver for both bluefish and striped bass. The distribution of bluefish is related primarily to water temperature as they do not often occur in temperatures less than 14-16 ℃1. Because of this, they are warm water migrants traveling north starting in the spring and returning south and further offshore in the fall2. Striped bass which spawn in Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River and the Hudson River migrate from North Carolina to Nova Scotia during the summer months, move north into feeding grounds during spring and summer3.

    1. 1. Bigelow HB, Schroeder WC (1953) Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. USFWS Bull. 53 577 p

    2. 2. Fahay MP. 1999. Essential fish habitat source document: bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, life history and habitat characteristics. NOAA Tech Memo NMFS NE 144: 68.

    3. 3. Walter JF III, Overton AS, Ferry KH, Mather ME (2003) Atlantic coast feeding habits of striped bass: a synthesis supporting a coast-wide understanding of trophic biology. Fish Man Ecol 10:349-360.

 

Northeast pelagic Human activities
Striped bass are a popular target for recreational fishing in the Northeast US. Credit: NEFSC/NOAA

Human Activities

The primary human activity which affects bluefish and striped bass is fishing. Historically, striped bass were one of the most important commercial fisheries along the coast, with so many caught that they were used as fertilizer1. The fishery collapsed in the 1980’s and has since been rebuilt. Most of the fish caught by recreational anglers are released (73-90% since 2003). Bluefish historically was more of a recreational fishery but since the early 90’s the proportion of commercial fisheries has increased. Both species are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and in the case of bluefish - jointly with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC).

 

    1. 1. Nelson GA (2018) Historical review of commercial fishery regulations for striped bass (Morone saxatilis Walbaum) in Massachusetts. Northeast Nat 25:143–160