The time of year we think of werewolves, warlocks, witches, and full moon evenings. But there is another creature who likes to howl at the moon this time of year – the coyote.
A coyote moving on Pensacola Beach near dawn.
Photo provided by Shelley Johnson.
Actually, coyotes howl all throughout the year, and they are not specifically howling at the moon. The name “coyote” is a Native American term meaning “singing dog”, or “barking dog”. They are famous for their early evening and early morning calls. Howls, barks, yelps, and yaps are very familiar to those living out west – and now for those living in the eastern United States.
It is believed the animal originated in the grasslands and deserts of the American southwest feeding on a variety of rodents. They have successfully dispersed across the country and can now be found in almost any habitat in the continental United States – including barrier islands. Though they owe much of their success to their ability to adapt to different foods and habitats, they also owe some of their success to humans. We have reduced their primary predators – bears, wolves, and mountain lions – to a level where they could move around more safely. There have been efforts to restore these predator populations in some localized areas of the U.S., but those are localized, and the process has been slow. All the while the coyote has enjoyed a more predator free world.
They are also opportunistic feeders. Though the bulk of their diet are small rodents, they are known to eat small birds, reptiles, amphibians, rabbits, squirrels, and even fruit. Out west, working in teams, they can take down larger prey – such as deer, and can do so here in the east as well. But their large prey targets are usually smaller members of the herd, sick, or old ones. They have also learned to feed on road kills of these animals.
Then there are humans. We provide an abundance of garbage which they have learned to scavenge through. Pet food left outside, gardens with produce, small livestock, and even pet cats and small dogs have been added to their menu. We have made their world much better.
With their numbers increasing in human populated areas, like Santa Rosa Island, people are becoming a bit nervous around them. The image of the toothed predator howling at the harvest moon on Halloween night in a pack with others makes us a bit uneasy. So, how dangerous are they?
Coyotes are intelligent animals, and though they have learned to live and hunt within our neighborhoods, they are still afraid of us – they consider us trouble. On a recent trip to Colorado I was hiking down a trail and saw what appeared to be two sets of pointed ears in the grass. My guess was coyote but was not sure – so I began to walk towards them. Three coyotes immediately got up and moved off across the next ridge. They wanted nothing to do with me. And that is how it should be.
Those on barrier islands, like Santa Rosa, are no different. They are more active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) and spend their days and late nights in a den somewhere. Occasionally people will see them in the middle of the day, or hear a yelp or howl around 2:00 AM, but it is more of a sunrise and sunset deal for them. They can remain motionless and undetected when people are around and will often run if we get too close. Many are not sure whether they are seeing a coyote or a German shepherd when they see one, both being about the same size. Coyotes tend to run with their tails down, unlike dogs and wolves who prefer to run with their tails up.
All of this said, there have been attacks on people – mostly out west and in southern California in particular. In most cases, the animals have either intentionally or unintentionally been fed by people. When this happens, they lose their fear of us and return for another easy meal. They are wild animals and being cornered by people or dogs (intentionally or unintentionally) can lead to defensive behaviors that could include attacks. To avoid this, we should not approach any coyote. Keep your trash secured and in cans that would be difficult for coyotes to access. Bring your pet food in at night and do not let pet cats and small dogs out in the evenings without supervision.
Bad encounters with these howling animals are rare, and with a little education and behavior changes on our part, should remain so.
When most people think of reefs, they think of the coral reefs of the Florida Keys and Australia. But here in the northern Gulf the winters are too cold for many species of corals to survive. Some can, but most cannot and so we do not have the same type of reefs here.
That said, we do have reefs. We have both natural and artificial reefs. There are natural reefs off Destin and a large reef system off the coast of Texas – known as the “Flower Gardens”. Here the water temperatures on the bottom are warm enough to support some corals. The artificial reef program along the northern Gulf is one of the more extensive ones found anywhere. There is a science to designing an artificial reef – you do not just go out and dump whatever – because if not designed correctly, you will not get the fish assemblages and abundance you were hoping for. But if you do… they will come.
Reefs are known for their high diversity and abundance of all sorts of marine life – including fishes. There are numerous places to hide and plenty of food. Most of the fish living on the reef are shaped so they can easily slide in and out of the structure, have teeth that can crush shell – the parrotfish can actually crush and consume the coral itself, and some can be fiercely territorial. There are numerous tropical species that can be found on them and they support a large recreational diving industry. Let’s look at a few of these reef fish.
These are fish of legend. There all sorts of stories of large morays, with needle shaped teeth, attacking divers. Some can get quite large – the green moray can reach 8-9 feet and weigh over 50 pounds. Though this species is more common in the tropics, it has been reported from some offshore reefs in the northern Gulf. There are three species that reside in our area: the purplemouth, the spotted, and the ocellated morays. The local ones are in the 2-3 foot range and have a feisty attitude – handle with care – better yet… don’t handle. They hide in crevices within the reef and explode on passing prey, snagging them with their sharp teeth. Many divers encounter them while searching these same crevices for spiny lobster. There are probing sticks you can use so that you do not have to stick your hand in there. There are rumors that since they have sharp teeth and tend to bite, they are venomous – this is not the case, but the bite can be painful.
The massive size of a goliath grouper. Photo: Bryan Fluech Florida Sea Grant
This word is usually followed by the word “sandwich”. One of the more popular food fish, groupers are sought by anglers and spearfishermen alike. They are members of the serranid family (“sea basses”). This is one of the largest families of fishes in the Gulf – with 34 species listed. 15 of these are called “grouper” and there have been other members of this family sold as “grouper”.
So, what is – or is not – a “grouper”. One method used is anything in the genus Epinephelus would be a grouper. This would include 11 species, but would leave out the Comb, Gag, Scamp, Yellowfin, and Black groupers – which everyone considers “grouper”. Tough call eh?
These are large bodied fish with broad round fins – the stuff of slowness. That said, they can explode, just like morays, on their prey. Anglers who get a grouper hit know it, and divers who spear one know it. They range in size from six inches to six feet. The big boy of the group is the Goliath Grouper (six feet and 700 pounds). They love structure – so natural and artificial reefs make good homes for them. They also like the oil rigs of the western Gulf.
An interesting thing about many serranids is the fact they are hermaphroditic – male and female at the same time. Most grouper take it a step further – they begin life as females and become males over time.
The king of finfish… the red snapper
Photo: Florida Sea Grant
The red snapper is king. Prized as a food fish all over the United States, and beyond, these fish have made commercial fishermen very happy. With an average length of 2.5 feet, some much larger individuals have been landed. This fishery put Pensacola on the map in the early 20th century. Sailing vessels called “Snapper Smacks” would head out to the offshore banks and natural reefs, return with a load, and sell both locally and markets in New York. There are large populations in Texas waters and down on the Campeche Banks off Mexico. “Snapper Season” is a big deal around here.
Though these are reef fish, snapper have a habit of feeding above, and away from, them. You probably knew there was more than one kind of snapper but may not know there are 10 species locally. Due to harvesting pressure, there are short seasons on the famous red snapper – so vermillion snapper has stepped in as a popular commercial fishery – and it is very good also. Some, like the gray snapper, are more common inshore around jetties and seawalls. Also known as the black snapper or mangrove snapper, this fish can reach about three feet in length and make a good meal as well.
The white grunt.
Photo: University of Florida
Grunts look just like snapper, and probably sold as them somewhere. But they are a different family. They lack the canines and vomerine teeth the snappers have – other than that, they do look like snapper. Easy to tell apart right? Vomerine are tiny teeth found in the roof of the mouth, in snappers they are in the shape of an arrow. They get their name from a grunting sound they make when grinding their pharyngeal teeth together. A common inshore one is called the “pigfish” because of this. They do not get as large as snapper (most are about a foot long) and are not as popular as a food fish, but the 11 known species are quite common on the reefs, and the porkfish is one of the more beautiful fish you will see there.
Spadefish on a panhandle snorkel reef.
Photo: Navarre Beach Snorkel
This is one of the more common fish found around our reefs. Resembling an angelfish, they are often confused with them – but they are in a family all to themselves. What is the difference you ask? The dorsal fin of the spade fish is divided into two parts – one spiny, the other more fin-like. In the angelfish, there is only one continuous dorsal fin.
Spadefish like to school and are actually good to eat. It is also the logo/mascot of the nearby Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
“Danger Will Robinson!” This fish has a serious set of teeth and will come off the reef and bite through a quarter inch wetsuit to defend their eggs. Believe it – they are not messing around. Once considered a by-catch to snapper fishermen, they are now a prized food fish. They are often called “leatherjackets” due to their fused scales forming a leathery like skin that must be cut off – no scaling with this fish. They have the typical tall-flat body of a reef fish, squeezing through the rocks and structure to hide or hunt. We have five species listed in the Gulf of Mexico, but it is the Gray Triggerfish that is most often encountered.
Photo courtesy of Florida Sea Grant
You may, may not, have heard of this one – most have by now. It is an invader to our reefs. To be an invasive species you must #1 be non-native. The lionfish is. There are actually about 20 species of lionfish inhabiting either the Indo-Pacific or the Red Sea region.
#2 have been brought here by humans (either intentionally or unintentionally – but they did not make it on their own) – this is the case with the lionfish. It was brought here for the aquarium trade. There are actually two species brought here: The Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) and the Devilfish (Pterois miles). Over 95% of what has been captured are the red lionfish – but it really does not matter, they look and act the same – so they are just called “lionfish”.
#3 they must be causing an environmental, and/or an economic problem. Lionfish are. They have a high reproductive rate – an average of 30,000 offspring every four days. There is science that during sometimes of the year it could be higher, also they breed year-round. Being an invasive species, there are few predators and so the developing young (encapsulated in a gelatinous sac) drift with the currents to settle on new reefs where they will eat just about anything they can get into their mouths. There have been no fewer than 70 species of small reef fish they have consumed – including the commercially valuable vermillion snapper and spiny lobster. There is now evidence they are eating other lionfish.
They quickly take over a reef area and some of the highest densities in the south Atlantic region have been reported off Pensacola. However, at a 2018 state summit, researchers indicated that the densities in our area have declined in waters less than 200 feet. This is most probably due to the harvesting efforts we have put on them. They are edible – actually, quite good, and there is a fishery for them. Derbies and ecotours have been out spearfishing for them since 2010. You may have heard they were poisonous and dangerous to eat. Actually, they are venomous, and the flesh is fine. The venom is found in the spines of the dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins. It is very painful, but there are no records of anyone dying from it. Work and research on management methods continue.
Is this what it sounds like? Fish that do not swim, but drift? Well… yes and no. They can swim, just not very well – they do better by drifting.
The word used most often for any drifting creature in the sea is plankton. Plankton literally means “drifter” or “wanderer”. Most plankton, including planktonic fish, can swim. Some can adjust their position in the water column – rising near the surface at night, sinking deeper during the day.
When you think about it, it is a cool way to make a living out there. With miles and miles of open blue water, the swimming fish must keep swimming. To do this requires a lot of energy, open water fish must consume a lot of high energy food. Drifters just drift. Hang with the currents, enjoying the moment, eating what they can. Sounds pretty good huh?
As you can imagine, there are not many fish who live this lifestyle. Many do after they hatch in their larval stage – but as adults, most live on the bottom, others in the open blue. Let’s meet a couple of the drifters.
The slow moving ocean sunfish.
Now here is one weird looking fish. Large bulbous head, long angular dorsal and ventral fins, and no tail – it’s a swimming/drifting head. These large open water drifters can reach seven feet long, seven feet high, and weigh over a ton. They can hold their position, undulating their dorsal and ventral fins, and move slowly through the water. Often, they will turn on their sides and just hang there. Looking like a floating board or something, small creatures are attracted to them, some of which they eat. Their diet is primarily jellyfish, though they have been known to take small fish, crustaceans, and even algae.
They are related to puffer fish, and actually resemble them early in life, but the resemblance fades quickly as this becomes more head than anything else.
Though rarely seen near shore, they have been, and one was actually spotted inside Pensacola Bay. They occasionally wash ashore dead. One did on Dauphin Island. The staff at the Sea Lab made a mold of the dead creature which is now hanging in the public Estuarium there. Many know this fish by its scientific name – Mola mola – or simply “the mola”. It is a pretty cool fish.
This sargassum fish is well camouflaged within this mat of sargassum weed.
Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History
Sargassum fish are members of a family known as “frogfish” – so you can guess what they must look like – and can guess they are not real good swimmers. Almost completely round, they are blobs in the sea. There are three species in the Gulf, two if which are bottom fish. However, the Sargassum fish is a drifter – drifting with the common seaweed known by its scientific name Sargassum. Sargassum is brown algae that produces air bladders called pneumatocyst. These bladders allow the weed to drift in large mats at the surface where they get sunlight. Some sargassum mats are huge is size and are an ecosystem amongst themselves. Hundreds of miniature fish and invertebrates call this place home – a place to hide in the open sea. It is the home of baby sea turtles, if they can make the trek from the beach alive.
One member of this community is the Sargassum fish (Histrio histrio). It has the typical frogfish shape and look but the coloration matches the Sargassum weed perfectly. Like other frogfish, the first dorsal spine is modified into a “fishing rod” complete with a “lure”. When prey (small creatures in the Sargassum weed) are in view, the Sargassum fish will extend the illicium (as it is called) and actually move it back and forth to make it look like live bait – they are fishing.
Most members of the Sargassum community flee the weed when the currents bring it to close to the beach. However, they hang on longer than you might think. If you are at the beach when the Sargassum is drifting just off the shore – wade out with a small kids dip net and snag a patch. Place in a bucket and see who comes out. You MIGHT get lucky and catch one of these ocean drifters.
It began easy enough – a tropical storm making landfall between Louisiana and Mississippi. Northwest Florida could expect some rain and rising water. Okay…
Shrimp boats from Allen Williams Seafood in Pensacola on shore. Most of the shrimp boats were.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
A few hours later the new landfall was predicted to be the Mississippi-Alabama coastline. This changes things a bit. We are expecting slightly higher winds, higher water, this will probably be a rain event. Some school districts closed; others were waiting to see. We already had our boat ready for Laura, which went further west than predicted, so we were ready. Tropical storm winds were doable as long as we did not get a direct hit. It was heading west of us. We were along the outside edge of the “cone of uncertainty”. I think we are good. Many others felt the same way.
Later, it was a sunny day and I was in a zoom meeting when my wife, a teacher, poked her head in and said they were closing schools through Wednesday. What? What is going on? Closing school for two days for a tropical storms that is going in west of Mobile AL? We should check out the weather channel. We did… it was now heading for the Alabama-Florida line. It was a strong tropical storm possible Category 1 hurricane. Maximum winds would be near 90 mph.
We made a few more preparations. We actually got some boards up when the rain began but could not get them all up (we have 23 windows in our house). The sun set, the rain came harder, the wind picked up, and the weather service changed their forecast again – winds to increase to 110 mph – probably make landfall as a Category II storm. They issued a hurricane warning for counties further east including Walton County. The high winds and rain whipped Pensacola all through the night and much of the next day. We were in the eye wall of a Category II storm. No one was prepared for this.
Several channel and day markers for navigation are damaged or missing. Mariners should be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
In the aftermath there was the typical hurricane damage. Downed trees, some on houses, boats on the beach, flooded homes, and – like other storms – some properties that were barely touched, or untouched all together. Power and water were out, and many roads were impassible. Oh, what a night…
There was something different this time. A company out of Virginia was building a new bridge over Pensacola Bay. They had completed the south bound section, tore down the old bridge, and were working on the north bound section while the south bound was being used. They had numerous barges anchored all over the bay full of work equipment, cranes, etc. For what ever reason, they did not move these into one of the bayous. The lines broke and many barges drifted. Some landed along the shorelines, some hit the bridge – the southbound section of the bridge – and it is now closed. This is part of Highway 98 from Pensacola to Gulf Breeze and used by hundreds of thousands of people each day. It is closed and traffic access for many in the community has changed. This is going to be tough.
But this newsletter is about natural resources… what about that?
A section of the new 3 Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay hangs down after being hit by one of the many barges adrift that night.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
As you might guess the water within the bay is a mess. There were hundreds of vessels that sank. You can see the fuel and oil slicks leaking from them on the surface of the water. You can also see pelicans and gulls swimming on and in it. There have been no reports of fish kills yet, but – to my knowledge – there has been no water sampling other than for bacteria. We know there were several sanitary sewer overflows due to the high rainfall amounts – I recorded 20.4” over the two-day period at my house. The water is a deep brown color and you can smell it in some locations. Health advisories are currently issued for all bodies of water that the Department of Health sample. No one should be in the water.
Along those same notes, no one should be boating at this time either. During our boat assessments of the area waters we saw numerous objects – such as docks, day markers, road work markers, and more – drifting all over the bay. Some floating, some slightly submerged. We managed to bump a submerged tree in one of the bayous and also managed to get a large sheet of plastic wrapped around our props. Boating is discouraged at this time. We know some of the fishing charters (smaller vessels) are going to try and fish this weekend. We understand this – they need the revenue – but we caution them to be on the look out for this debris.
This highway work can was piece of thousands of pieces of debris floating in the bay. Mariners be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
This drifting day marker ran aground on a shoal in the ICWW near Ft. Pickens. At the time of this photo, it was unmarked and had no light on it. Mariners be cautious.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
I have not been on the barrier islands, but photos show severe erosion on portions and there are three new inlets on the east end of Perdido Key, one of those we could see from our boat. We have no idea what impacts this storm had on the wildlife but it fair to say that things have changed. We alerted residents to be aware of snakes while doing clean up – we will alert them again. I remember after Ivan the increase in the hawk activity due to downed and thinned trees – squirrels were now easier targets. This has happened again. There is one really large red-tailed hawk hanging around our house and doing quite well.
At the time of this writing, I have not contacted the local wildlife sanctuary, but I am guessing injured and orphaned animals will increase. The wildlife sanctuary itself took on water, but almost all of the animals survived, and they are back at work.
This marina, and many others, will be out of service for quite some time.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
So, from a natural resource stance – water is poor, do not swim – fish are not dying, but would hold off fishing inland – keep an eye out for wandering wildlife, such as snakes, that have been displaced. We are expecting sick and injured birds due to oil slick and other debris issues.
There is one last lesson from Sally… be prepared. We have become very comfortable with the forecast. Northwest Florida was outside the “cone” for a tropical storm making landfall near Mississippi – and then. As we all know these storms can change direction and intensify (remember Michael’s turn east) at a moments notice. Any storm with name in the Gulf should be taken seriously, whether tropical storm or not.
There is a lot of blue out there… a whole lot of blue. Miles of open water in the Gulf with nowhere to hide… except amongst yourselves. Their blue colored bodies, aerodynamically shaped like bullets with stiff angular fins, can zip along in this vast blue openness in large schools. Their myoglobin rich red muscle increases their swimming endurance – they can travel thousands of miles without tiring. Some species are what we call “ram-jetters”, fish that basically do not stop swimming – roaming the “big blue” looking for food and avoid being eaten, following the warm currents in search of their breeding grounds.
The open water is a place for specialists. Most of these fish have small, or no scales, to reduce frictional drag. They have a well-developed lateral line system so when a member of the school turns, the others sense it and turn in unison – just as the four planes in the US Navy Blue Angels delta do – perfect motion.
Many are built for speed. Sleek bodies with sharp angular fins and massive amounts of muscle / body mass, some species can reach speeds close to 70 mph – some can “fly”. There are fewer species who can live here, as opposed to the ocean floor, but those who do are amazing – and some of the most prized commercial and recreational fishing targets in the world. Let’s meet a few of them.
Flying fish do not actually “fly”, they are gliders using their long pectoral fins.
First, they do not actually fly – they glide. These tube-shaped speedy fish have elongated pectoral fins, reaching half the length of their bodies. The two lobes of their forked tail are not the same length – the lower lobe being longer. Using this like a rudder, they gain speed near the surface and, at some point, leap – extend the large pectoral fins, and glide above the water – sometimes up to 100 yards. As you might guess, this is to avoid the sleek speedy open water predators coming after them. You might also imagine that they, and their close cousins the half-beaks, are popular bait for the bill fishermen seeking those predators.
There are eight species of these amazing fish in the Gulf of Mexico ranging in size from 6-16 inches. Most are oceanic – never coming within 100 miles of the coast, but a few will, and can, be seen even near the pass into Pensacola Bay.
The cobia – also known as the ling, lemonfish, and sergeant fish, is a migratory species moving through our area in the spring.
This is one of the migrating fish local anglers gear up for every year – the cobia run. When the water turns from 60° to 70°F in the spring – the cobia moves up the coastline heading from east to west. They have many different common names along the Gulf Coast. Ling, Cabio, Lemonfish, and Sergeant fish have all been used for this same animal. This is one reason biologists use scientific names – Rachycentron canadum in this case. That way we all know we are talking about the same fish. Whatever you call it, it is popular with the anglers and there is nothing like a fresh cobia sandwich – try one!
They can get quite large – 5 feet and up to 100 pounds – and resemble sharks in the water, sometimes confused with them. They seem to like drifting flotsam, where potential prey may hangout, and fishermen will toss their baits all around their schools trying to get them to take. At times, fishermen have confused sea turtles with cobia and have accidentally snagged them – only to release it, though it is a workout to do so, and they try to avoid it.
Cobia are in a family all their own. Their closest relatives are the remoras, or sharksuckers, which sometimes attach to them. They travel all over the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean.
Jacks have the sleek, fast design of the typical open water marine fish.
This is the largest open water family of fish I the northern Gulf – with 24 species. Not all jacks are open water, many are found on reefs and in estuaries. But these are aerodynamic shaped fish, with small scales and angular fins, and built for the open water environment. They vary in size, ranging from less than one foot, to over three. This group is identified by the two extended spines just in front of their anal fin. Several species – such as the amberjacks, pompano, and almaco jacks – are prized food fish. Others – like the jack crevalle and the blue runner (hardtail) – are just fun to catch, putting up great fights.
They are schooling fish and often associated with submerged wrecks and reefs, where prey can be found. The black and white pilot fish is called this because mariners would see them swimming in front of sharks – “piloting” them through the ocean. They are open water jacks but are more tropical and accounts in our area are rare.
The colors of the mahi-mahi are truly amazing.
Photo: National Wildlife Federation
This is the Hawaiian term for a fish called the dolphin (Coryphaena hippurus). You can probably guess why they prefer to call it by its Hawaiian name. It is a popular food fish, and to have “dolphin” on the menu – or to say “hey, we’re going dolphin fishing – want to come?” would raise eyebrows – and have.
The Mexicans call it “dorado”, and that term is used locally as well. Either name – it is an amazing fish. With the bull-shaped forehead of the males – they are sometimes referred to as the “bull-dolphin”. Their colors, and color changing, is amazing to see. Some biologists believe this may be some form of communication between members, don’t know, but the brilliant greens, blues, and yellows are amazing to see. They lose these colors shortly after death, so you must see it to believe it – or find one of the popular fish t-shirts.
Like jacks, dolphin like to hang around flotsam, or large schools of baitfish, looking for prey. As with many other open water predators, they will sometimes work in a team to scare, and scatter, individuals from the safety of their school. There are only two species in this family, and both are prized for their taste.
The Striped Mullet.
Image: LSU Extension
This is not one you would typically call an “open water” fish. But in the nearshore Gulf and estuaries, they are more open water than bottom dwellers – though they do feed off the bottom. Sleek bodied, forked tail, angular fins, they have what it takes to be a fast swimmer. Though they do not “fly” as the flying fish do, they do leap out of the water. Many visitors hanging out around the Sound will hear a fish splash and immediately ask “what kind of fish was that?” Many locals will respond without looking up – “it was a mullet” – and they are probably right.
This brings up the age-old question… why do mullet jump? This was once asked of a marine biology professor. He paused… thought… and responded saying “for the same reasons manta rays jump”. That was it… another long pause. Finally, the students “took the bait” – “Okay, why do manta rays jump?”. The professor replied, “we don’t know”. So, there you go.
Another interesting thing about this fish is its wide tolerance of salinity. Mullet have been found in freshwater rivers and springs and the hypersaline lagoons of south Texas – they truly don’t care.
Locally they are popular food fish, and support a large commercial fishery in Florida, but in other parts of the Gulf not so much. It has to do with their environment and what they are feeding on. In muddier portions of the Gulf (or our bay for that matter) they have an oily taste and locals there call the “trash fish”. Even hearing that locals here eat them “grosses” them out. Local respond by giving it a more “high end” name – the Mulle (spoken with a French accent). This is actually the Cajun term for the fish. And let’s step it up a notch by adding that many locals eat mullet row – the eggs. Yea… getting hungry right? One of the popular cable food shows came here to try mullet roe. They said on a scale of 1 to 10, they give it a -4.
All that said, it is a local icon – with seafood stores selling “In Mullet We Trust” t-shirts, and the popular “Mullet Toss” event held every year on Perdido Key. It is a COOL fish.
This Spanish Mackerel has the distinct finlets of the mackerel family along the dorsal and ventral side of the body.
When you mention mackerel around here you usually think of one of two fish – the king mackerel (sometimes just referred to as “the king”) and the Spanish mackerel. But it is actually a large family of open water fish that includes the tuna, bonito, and the wahoo (of baseball fame).
They are some of the fastest fish in the sea, and several species are ram-jetters. Sleek bodies, sharp angular fins, they can be identified by the row of small finlets on the dorsal and ventral sides of their bodies near the rear. Full of red muscle, rich in myoglobin (which can hold more oxygen than hemoglobin alone), these are powerful swimming fish and very popular in the sushi trade. A bluefin tuna can be 14 feet long, 800 pounds, and bring a commercial fisherman tens of thousands of dollars. Because of this bluefin tuna are internationally protected and managed.
Another cool thing about these guys is that some species can control blood flow, and location, to help maintain a higher body temperature – “warm blooded” – allowing them to venture into colder waters of the world’s oceans. They are one of the big migratory fish we find. Following the large ocean currents, some species use this to play out their entire life cycle. Born in the warmer portions of the ocean gyres, they grow and feed in the cooler areas, returning in the warmer currents to breed.
There are 12 species in this family ranging in size from 1 to 15 feet. They have the characteristic “dark on top – light one bottom” coloration many animals have. This called countershading. It is believed to be used as a form of camouflage in the deep blue – with the darker blue-indigo on top (to blend in with the bottom if look from above) and the lighter silver-white on the bottom (to blend in with the sunlit surface if viewed from the below). This idea was used by the US Navy during World War II. If you visit our Naval Aviation Museum, you will see they painted the planes a darker blue on top and a lighter white on bottom. In hopes that the Japanese pilots would have a hard time spotting them over the Pacific Ocean. It is also believed to help with temperature control. The darker side will absorb heat, while the lighter side releases – avoiding over-heating. Amazing fish, aren’t they?