The mackerel is a seemingly ubiquitous fish, occupying waters along the tropical and temperate latitudes as far north as Labrador, Canada, down to the coasts surrounding Peru.
There are more than 30 different types of mackerel in the family tree, consisting of three distinct branches– The Scombroid, or true mackerels, the Scromberomorini, or Spanish mackerel, and those in the Carangidae, Heagrammidae, and Gempylidae families, or “other” mackerel. Read along as we explore the different types of mackerel in America.
The migratory king mackerel is the largest of the different types of mackerel in America. It inhabits the waters along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Brazil and parts of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
This stately silvery fish is a favorite among sportspeople, reaching up to 100-pounds and 5 ½ feet in length, though most average out around 30 pounds.
They are a steely-grey color along their belly, with a blue back and a blush of rose along the sides.
Unlike many mackerels, adults do not have spotted bellies, but the juveniles may have very faint yellow dotting along the sides. They also have a unique lateral line that dips sharply at their midsection.
Spanish mackerel move along the Atlantic coast from New York in the warmer months, then back down to the Gulf of Mexico near Florida in the cooler months.
Like the king mackerel, the Spanish mackerel has a teal back, but its dorsal fins are very dark. However, they are much smaller, typically weighing 2-3 pounds at 14-18 inches long.
What makes this fish easily distinguishable, though, is the olive or gold-colored spots that adorn their sides. These are much more visible than the spotting on juvenile king mackerel.
On average, the cero mackerel reaches a length of 12-15 inches and weighs 5-10 pounds. They have greenish-blue backs that fade into the pearlescent silver belly. They may have barely-there streaks of pink on the lighter areas.
They make their home in the warm, tropical waters south of Florida, staying year-round to feed on the abundance of shrimp and smaller fish.
Because they fall between the Spanish mackerel and king mackerel in size, they are often mistaken for these other species.
Cero is the only one of the three, though, that have iridescent yellow or bronze stripes running the length of their body.
You can find Atlantic mackerel on both sides of the northern Atlantic, where they swim in enormous schools that can stretch out up to 20 miles long.
This species is approximately 1 ½ feet long and weighs 1-3 pounds, with a streamlined body that tapers at the head and forked tail. They are metallic blue above the lateral line and pearly white below.
The black bars that whorl over the back of the Atlantic mackerel are their most prominent trait, as they almost resemble zebra stripes.
Mackerel stripes are so distinctive that the word is used to describe other animals, such as the mackerel tabby cat. These patterns fade as soon as the fish dies.
Sierra mackerel live near the surface of the Pacific Ocean. While they can be found in Southern California, their habitat consists of the warmer waters of Central America south to Peru.
For that reason, they are commonly known as the Mexican sierra. They grow to around 8-inches long and 1 to 5 pounds.
Along the dorsal area, they are a dark greenish-bronze. Notably, their first dorsal fin is black, while the second fin is colored similarly to the rows of orange spots that span the ventral part of their body. They have knife-like teeth that they use to feast on anchovies.
Sharing the waters of the Pacific with the sierra, the chub mackerel more closely resembles the Atlantic mackerel thanks to black zigzagging bars that crest over its silvery-green back.
However, these markings are less prominent than on their cousins. Their belly is very pale silver or white. Chub mackerel are a smaller fish, weighing 2-4 pounds and measuring 8-13 inches long.
This species of mackerel has very large eyes and a cream-colored, forked tail. Often, the tail will have a black outline and tips.
When they are young, chub mackerel stick to the shoreline before venturing out to deeper waters in their adulthood.
Preferring the cooler waters of the northern Atlantic Ocean, the Atlantic horse mackerel is one of the larger fish of the family tree.
They can be as long as 2-feet, though most are closer to 10-inches, and they weigh approximately 3 pounds. They have large heads and tapering bodies that lead to a forked tail.
Atlantic horse mackerel is a light champagne color with a greenish tint. Their bellies are silvery green.
While they lack the mottling patterning of the Atlantic and chub mackerel, they do have a black gill spot behind their eyes.
The speedy, strong wahoo is a very popular sporting fish and has an appearance that sets them apart from others in the mackerel family line.
They are very slender, with elongated bodies covered in blue, vertical stripes that wrap around the entire fish—these contrast sharply against the paler background color.
Wahoos live in tropical and subtropical waters off of both coasts of America, reaching lengths of 5-6 feet.
Interestingly, wahoo snouts have the interesting habit of opening once the fish is out of the water, showing off their powerful serrated teeth. This snout occupies half of the total head length of the fish.
Inhabiting oceans worldwide, mackerels are a seafood staple for many nations, including the United States.
Most types of mackerel in America are a stable source of food, as well as an intriguing catch-and-release fish for eager sportspeople.
As ocean predators, they are also a crucial part of the natural food chain, keeping populations of smaller fish, such as anchovies, herring, and sardines, in check.