Despite the resolving power of DNA markers, pelagic and migratory marine fish species generally show very little geographical population structuring. In mackerel (Scomber scombrus L.) population differentiation has been detected only at a transatlantic scale. By applying two regions in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) (D–loop and cytochrome b (cytb)) in combination with genealogical and frequency–based statistical approaches, our data suggest population differentiation among eastern Atlantic spawning stocks. In contrast, and indicative of homing behaviour, no genetic structuring was observed among shoals of individuals outside the spawning season. Among spawning stocks, mtDNA D–loop sequences detected differentiation within the eastern Atlantic, while the cytb gene detected transatlantic differentiation. The impact of recurrent events (e.g. gene flow restricted by isolation by distance) and historic events (e.g. population range expansions) among spawning stocks was investigated applying a nested cladistic analysis of geographical distribution of cytb haplotype lineages. In the eastern Atlantic, historical population range expansion, presumably in connection with recolonization of northern areas after the last glaciation, is suggested to be the main factor determining mtDNA lineage distribution. This was supported by estimates of mtDNA nucleotide diversity, where the highest diversity was observed for the stock spawning in the Bay of Biscay, for which the size estimate is only 15% of the largest stock (Celtic Sea). In addition to revealing population differentiation, our data demonstrate the importance of sampling strategy and the power of applying statistical methods addressing both ongoing and historical population processes.