Herrings, Sardines, and Anchovies of the Florida Panhandle

Herrings, Sardines, and Anchovies of the Florida Panhandle

These are all fish that many have heard of but know nothing about.  They are not even sure what they look like.  We have heard of them as a seafood product.  Smoked herring, canned sardines, and anchovy pizza are popular the world over.  These are one of the largest commercial species harvested in U.S. waters.  In 2020 over 6 million pounds of sardines, 12 million pounds of anchovies, 41 million pounds of herring, 1.3 BILLION pounds of menhaden were harvested.  The menhaden catch alone was valued at just under $200 million2.  It not as large a fishery in Florida.  327,000 pounds of menhaden, 700,000 pounds of sardines, and 1.8 million pounds of herring were harvested from state waters in 2020 and at value of about $900,000 in 2020.  The fish are popular in many European dishes, cat food, and menhaden oil is used in many products.

The Gulf menhaden supports a large commercial fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: NOAA

These fishes are actually divided into two families.  The herring, sardine, and menhaden are in the Family Clupeidae and are often called “clupeids”.  This family includes 11 species in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Most have a “hatchet” shape to their bodies – being straight along their back with a deep curve along the ventral side, and most having a forked, or lunate, tail.  They average between 2-20 inches in length and form massive schools as they travel near the surface waters filtering plankton.  They are often harvested using purse seines.  Large factory vessels will plow the waters searching for the large schools.  Often, they will use aerial assistance to search such as small airplanes or ultralights.  Once spotted, small chase boats will be launched from the factory vessel hauling the large purse seine around the school.  Once that is completed a large weight called a “tommy” is dropped that “zips” the purse shut and captures the fish.  There is little bycatch in this method.

Purse seining in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo: NOAA

The anchovies are found in the family Engraulidae.  They differ in that they are more streamlined in shape and their mouths are larger / body size than the clupeids.  Though there is no commercial fishery for them in Florida, they comprise one of the largest groups of schooling fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Hoese and Moore mention that the local species are too small for a fishery.  The five native species average between 2.5-5.5 inches in length1.  Some marine biologists consider anchovies as an “environmental canary”, or indicator species.  Their presence can suggest good water quality.  I have often caught them in seines along the beach in the Pensacola area.  They resemble the very common silverside minnow in that they have a silver stripe running down their sides.  But they differ in that they (a) only have a single dorsal fin (silversides have two), and (b) their snouts extend to a point resembling the head of a shark.

This striped anchovy resembles a silver side but differs with the shape of its snout and the number of dorsal fins.
Photo: NOAA

The distribution and biogeography of this group of fishes is all over the place.  The round herring (Etrumeus teres) has few barriers and is found from the Bay of Fundy (at the Canadian/Maine border) to the Pacific Ocean1!  A few species have the classic “Carolina” distribution – meaning they are found from North Carolina south, the entire Gulf of Mexico, and down to Brazil.  For whatever reason (currents, water temperature, other) they do not venture north of the Carolinas and are probably impacted by the large amount of freshwater entering the Atlantic Ocean near the Amazon River.

 

Twp species are restricted by tropical conditions.  The tiny dwarf herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) and the Spanish sardine (Sardinella anchovia) are both listed as being restricted by water temperatures, though I have captured plenty of the Spanish sardines in the Pensacola area.

 

Some species are restricted to either the eastern or western Gulf of Mexico.  Usually, the barrier for this distribution is the Mississippi River.  Like the Amazon, there is a large plume of highly turbid/low salinity water extending into the Gulf of Mexico which keeps some species from crossing.  Hoese and Moore report the Alabama shad (Alosa alabamae) only from the area between the Mississippi River and the Florida panhandle.  The Mississippi River to one side, and the Apalachicola on the other.

Clupeids, like this Pacific sardine, for m large schools can consist of literally millions of fish.
Photo: NOAA

And finally, there is a spatial distribution with some species between freshwater, estuaries, and the open shelf.  Two species, the threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) and the gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) are more associated with freshwater.  The scaled sardine (Harengula pensacolae) is more common on the open shelf of the Gulf.

 

We all know the names of these fish but are unaware of their general biology and importance to commercial fisheries around the world.  Many are common in our estuaries and play an important role in the health of the overall ecology.  They are important members of the “panhandle fish family”.

 

 

References

1 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX.  Pp. 327.

 

2 NOAA Fisheries.  2021. Commercial Landings.  https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/foss/f?p=215:200:2082956461436::NO:::.

 

3 Florida Commercial Landings.  2021. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fishstats/commercial-fisheries/landings-in-florida/.

Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

A Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival volunteer sorts lionfish for weighing. (L. Tiu)

The northwest Florida area has been identified as having the highest concentration of invasive lionfish in the world.  Lionfish pose a significant threat to our native wildlife and habitat with spearfishing the primary means of control.  Lionfish tournaments are one way to increase harvest of these invaders and help keep populations down.  Not only that, but lionfish are a delicious tasting fish and tournaments help supply the local seafood markets with this unique offering.

Since 2019, Destin, Florida has been the site of the Emerald Coast Open (ECO), the largest lionfish tournament in the world, hosted by Destin-Fort Walton Beach and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).  While the tournament was canceled in 2020, due to the pandemic, the 2021 tournament and the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival returned to the Destin Harbor May 14-16 with over 145 tournament participants from around Florida, the US, and even Canada.  The windy weekend facilitated some sporty conditions keeping boats and teams from maximizing their time on the water, but ultimately 2,505 lionfish were removed during the pre-tournament and 7,745 lionfish were removed during the two-day event for a total of 10,250 invasive lionfish removed. Florida Sea Grant and FWC recruited over 50 volunteers from organizations such as Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station and Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center to man the tournament and surrounding festival.

Lionfish hunters competed for over $48,000 in cash prizes and $25,000 in gear prizes. Florida Man, a Destin-based dive charter on the DreadKnot, won $10,000 for harvesting the most lionfish, 1,371, in 2 days.  Team Bottom Time secured the largest lionfish prize of $5,000 with a 17.32 inch fish.  Team Into the Clouds wrapped up the $5,000 prize for smallest lionfish with a 1.61 inch fish, the smallest lionfish caught in Emerald Coast Open History.

It is never too early to start preparing for the 2022 tournament. For more information, visit EmeraldCoastOpen.com or Facebook.com/EmeraldCoastOpen. For information about Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, visit FWCReefRangers.com

“An Equal Opportunity Institution”

Where Have All the Scallops Gone?

Where Have All the Scallops Gone?

For those who lived in the Pensacola Bay area 50 or so years ago, this question comes up from time to time.  By scallop I am speaking of the bay scallop (Argopecten irradians), the one sought by so many scallopers then and now.  This relatively small bivalve sits on beds of turtle grass, gazing with their ice blue eyes, filtering the water for plankton and avoiding numerous predators.  They only live for a year, maybe two.  They aggregate in relatively large groups and mass spawn.  Releasing male gametes first, then female, fertilizing externally in the water column, to create the next generation.

Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

These are unique bivalves in that they can swim… sort of.  When conditions are not good, or a predator is detected, they can use their single adductor muscle to open and close the shells creating a current of expelling water that “pushes” them along and off the bottom.  They were once found from Pensacola to Miami… but no longer.  Scallops have become almost nondetectable in much of their historic range.  Today they congregate in the Big Bend area of the state, and there they are heavily harvested.

 

What happened?

Well, if you look at the variety of causes for species decline around the globe habitat loss is usually at the top of the list.  The habitat of the bay scallop are seagrass beds.  There are many publications reporting the loss of seagrasses across the Gulf and Atlantic coast.  Locally we know that the historic beds of the Pensacola Bay system have declined.  We also know that some of those beds have shown some recovery in the last 20 years.  But was the loss enough to cause the decline of the scallop?

 

Studies show that there is a strong association between seagrasses and scallops.  The planktonic larva typically attached to grass blades a week or two after fertilization.  This seems essential to reduce predation.  Once they drop from the blades, vegetative cover is important for their survival.  This suggests yes – any loss of seagrass could begin the loss of bay scallops.

 

What about water quality?

We do know that scallops need more saline brackish water – at (or above) 20 parts per thousand (20‰); 10‰ or less is lethal.  Sea Grant is currently working with citizen scientists in Escambia County to monitor the salinity of area waters weekly.  Though we do not believe the data is usable until we have 100 readings from each location, early numbers suggest that locations in Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound are at 20‰ threshold.  We do not know whether run-off engineering of the 1970s may have lowered the salinity to cause a die-off, and one would think (since they can swim) they would move to a better location.  However, if salinities were low across much of their local range, and seagrasses were not available in areas where salinities were good, this could have a devasting impact on their numbers.

 

Then there is sedimentation.  Studies show that young scallops (<20mm) that do not have seagrass to attach to settle on silty bottoms and their survival is very low.  And then there are toxic metals, and other contaminants that scallops may have little tolerance for.  It is known that juvenile scallops have a low tolerance for mercury.

 

Disease?

One study from the Tampa Bay area indicated that there was little loss of scallops due to disease and parasites.

 

And then there is overharvesting…

Scallops are mass spawners and there needs to be high numbers of adults near each other for reproduction to be successful.  If people are taking too many, this can lead to more spaced adults and less chance of successful fertilization.  This combined with environmental stressors probably did our populations in.

 

According to a publication from Sarasota Bay Estuary Program in 2010, populations of less than five scallops / 600m2 is considered collapsed.  Sea Grant has been conducting volunteer scallop searches in the Pensacola Bay area for the last five years.  In that time, we have found only one live scallop… we have collapsed.  During the 2021 Scallop Search, 17 volunteers surveyed 4000m2 and found no live scallops.  However, reports of live scallops outside of our surveys indicate they are still there.  We will see what the future holds.

 

References

 

Castagna, Michael, Culture of the Bay Scallop, Argopecten irradians, in Virginia (1975). Marine Fisheries

Review, 37(1), 19-24.

https://scholarworks.wm.edu/vimsarticles/1200

 

Leverone, J.R. 1993. Environmental Requirements Assessment of the Bay Scallop

Argopecten Irradians Concentricus. Final Report. Tampa Bay Estuary Program.  Pp.82.

 

Leverone, J.R., S.P. Geiger, S.P. Stephenson, and W.S. Arnold. 2010. Increase in Bay Scallop (Argopecten irradians) Populations Following Releases of Competent Larvae in Two West Florida Estuaries. Journal of Shellfish Research. Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 395-406.

Tarpon in the Florida Panhandle

Tarpon in the Florida Panhandle

This is a famous fish.  If you look back at the old tourism magazines of the early 20th century you will see a lot about tarpon fishing in Florida.  As a matter of fact, some say that tarpon fishing was the beginning of the tourism industry in the state.  Also known as “silver kings”, they put up a tremendous fight which anglers love, particularly on lighter tackle.  It is a sport fish, not sought for food, so catch and release has been the rule for years.  But those who seek them will tell you it is worth the fight even if you must release it.

Tarpon have been a popular fishing target for decades.
Photo: NOAA

Tarpon (Megalops atlantica) are large bodied, large scaled fish, with a deep blue back and silver sides.  They are a large fish, reaching over 8 feet in length and up to 350 pounds.  They tend to travel in schools and are often associated with other fish, such as snook2.

 

It has always been thought of as a “south Florida fish”.  As mentioned, down there it is a popular fishing target for tourist and residents alike.  Many charter captains specialize in catching the fish and they have been featured in fishing programs.  But you do not hear about such things in the Florida panhandle.  Hoese and Moore1, as well as the Florida Museum of Natural History2 both indicate that they are in fact in the Florida panhandle.  As a matter of fact, this fish has few barriers and has the distribution of the classic “Carolina fish” group.  That includes the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, the entire Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean1.  The Florida Museum of Natural History indicates they are found on the opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean and may have made their way through the Panama Canal to the Pacific shores of the canal.  Within this range they are known to enter freshwater rivers.  They seem to have few biogeographic barriers.

 

I grew up in the panhandle and remember hearing about them swimming in our area when I was younger.  Fishermen said they would throw all sorts of bait at them.  Artificial lures, live bait, cut bait, you name it – they tossed it… the tarpon never would take it.  Catching one here was almost impossible.  The flats fishing charter trips for tarpon in south Florida would not happen here.  I remember once diving in Pensacola Bay near Ft. Pickens.  We were looking for an old Volkswagen beetle that had been sunk years ago when at one point the water became very dark – almost like storm clouds had rolled in.  When my buddy and I both looked up we saw a school of very large fish swimming above us.  We were not sure what they were at first but as we slowly ascended, we realized they were tarpon.  It was pretty amazing.

 

An interesting side note here.  In 2020 tarpon were once again seen swimming around the Pensacola area but this time they WERE taking bait.  There were several reports of tarpon caught off the Pensacola Fishing Pier and inside the bay.  Why change over all this time?  I am not sure.

The ladyfish (or skipjack) is the smaller cousin of the tarpon, but puts up a good fight as well.
Photo: University of Southern Mississippi

Tarpon belong to the family Elopidae which also includes another local fish known as the “ladyfish” or “skipjack” (Elops saurus).  This is a much smaller fish reaching about 3 feet (and that would be a large ladyfish).  The scales of this family member are much smaller, but the fight on hook and line is just as large.  The characteristic that places these two fish into the same family (and these are the only two in this family) is the hard bony gular plate found between the right and left side of the lower jaw (in the “throat” area).

Like tarpon, it is not prized as a food fish but more of a game fish.  It has the classic wide distribution of the “Carolina fish group” – the eastern seaboard of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, down to Brazil.  Like the tarpon, it is found in brackish conditions but is not mentioned in freshwater.  Again, few biogeographic barriers for this fish.

 

Both members of this family provide anglers young and old with a lot of enjoyment.

 

1 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters.  Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. Pp. 327.

 

2 Discover Fishes. Tarpon. Florida Museum of Natural History. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/megalops-atlanticus/.

 

3 Discover Fishes.  Ladyfish. Florida Museum of Natural History.  https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/elops-saurus/.

Gars of the Florida Panhandle

Gars of the Florida Panhandle

Like the ancient sturgeon, this is one strange prehistoric looking group of fish.  I’ll say group of fish because there is more than one kind.  For many, all gars are alligator gars.  There is an alligator gar but there are others.  Actually, the longnose gar may be seen more often than the alligator gar, but many do not know there is more than one kind.

 

Gars are freshwater fish, but several species have a high tolerance for saltwater.  The alligator gar (Artactosteus spatula) has been reported from the Gulf of Mexico1.  They are elongated, slow moving fish with extended snouts full of sharp teeth – very intimidating to look at.  But swimming with gars in springs and rivers, I have found them to be oblivious to me.  Snag one in a net however, and they will turn quickly and could do serious harm.  While fishing my grandson had one come after his bait once and that was pretty exciting, but it is rare to catch them on hook and line.  Many who fish for them do so with bow and arrow.  Their skin is covered with tough ganoid scales.  You really can’t scale them; you have to skin them.

Alligator Gar from the Escambia River.
Photo: North Escambia.com

 

In the book Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, by Hoese and Moore, they list four species of gar in the northern Gulf.  As the name suggests, the longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus) has a long slender snout and has spots on the body.  It is the one most often seen by people visiting our springs, rivers, and the one most often seen in our estuaries.  It can reach a length of five feet3.

 

The famous alligator gar (Artactosteus spatula) has a shorter snout and spots are usually lacking.  If they do have them, the are usually on the fins.  This is a big boy – reaching lengths of nine feet and up to 100 pounds2.  They are common in coastal estuaries and even the Gulf, though not encountered very often.

 

The spotted gar (L. oculatus) also has a short snout but has spots all over its body.  It prefers the rivers and will enter estuaries only where the salinities are low.  It is smaller at four feet4.

Spotted Gar.
Photo: University of Florida

The last panhandle gar is the shortnose gar (L. platostomus).  This species too prefers rivers and may enter low salinity bays.  It has a short snout and lacks spots.

 

There is a Florida gar (L. platyrhincus) not found in the panhandle but exists along the central and south Florida gulf coast.  It seems to have replaced the spotted gar in this location5.

 

The biogeography of this group of fish is interesting in that it is an ancient like the sturgeon, it existed during a time period when much of Florida would have been underwater.  The general range of gars is the entire eastern United States.  They prefer slow moving rivers, or backwaters of faster rivers, and are common in springs.  As mentioned, a few species will venture into saltwater and can be found around the Gulf of Mexico.  But with several species there has obviously been some speciation over time.

The common longnose gar.
Photo: University of South Florida.

The longnose gars have one of the widest distributions within the group.  They are found in most river systems across the eastern United States and all of Florida.  It seems to have few barriers including saltwater.

 

Alligator gars have a similar distribution but seem to be restricted from the peninsula part of Florida.  The Florida rivers where they are found are all in the panhandle and are all alluvial rivers – muddy and not tannic like the Suwannee.  This could be due to required food that prefer alluvial rivers, pH (pH is lower in the tannic rivers), or something else.  Though they did not disperse into central and south Florida, they did extend their range westward down into Mexico.  And, as mentioned, have been reported in the open Gulf of Mexico.

 

Spotted gars follow a similar distribution to the alligator gar.  Much of the Mississippi River basin, Florida panhandle, and west to Texas – but they are not found in peninsular Florida.  Pre-dating the emergence of peninsular Florida from the sea, there was some barrier that prevented them from dispersing south when the landmass did appear.

 

A different species appeared in peninsular Florida along with the longnose gar – the Florida gar.  It is found in central and south Florida and has dispersed a little north along the Atlantic coast to Georgia.

 

This is an interesting group of ancient fish.  Some are commercially harvested and have suffered from human alterations of river systems.  They are amazing to see.

 

 

1 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX.  Pp. 327.

 

2 Discover Fishes.  Florida Museum of Natural History. Alligator Gar. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/alligator-gar/.

 

3 Discover Fishes. Florida Museum of Natural History. Longnose Gar.  https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/longnose-gar/.

 

4 Discover Fishes.  Florida Museum of Natural History. Spotted Gar. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/spotted-gar/.

 

5 Discover Fishes.  Florida Museum of Natural History.  Florida Gar. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/florida-gar/.

Summer Tis the Season for Sensational Seafood

Summer Tis the Season for Sensational Seafood

Summertime in North Florida is an awesome time of year if you like to harvest and prepare your own seafood from local waters. In my area, around Wakulla and Franklin County, scallop season runs from July 1 – September 24. In St. Joseph Bay, another popular scalloping area in Gulf County, the season spans from August 14 – September 24. Therefore, in the spirit of “sharing the love,” here is my recipe for a day with family and friends that you will never forget and will eagerly anticipate repeating each year as summertime approaches.

Two parts: “local knowledge”
– Study boating access points and local water depths/tides
– Talk to locals about the best places to find scallops
– Ask others for their favorite scallop recipes

One part: “the right gear”
– Masks, snorkels and mesh bags are a must
– Dive fins and small dip nets are helpful
Dive flag on display is required when swimming
– Bring a bucket for measuring your catch

One part: “a little luck”
– Sunny days and clear water are best for seeing scallops down in the seagrasses
– Winds below 10 knots make boating and snorkeling more pleasant

Two parts: “paying attention to the details”
– Know the rules on Licenses, gear, limits and season dates
– Conduct equipment checks on snorkel gear, boat/trailer, and required safety gear
– Boat safely and cautiously near swimmers and over shallow seagrass beds
– Keep young children close, watch the weather, and know local hazards for boaters
– Don’t forget the sunscreen, snacks, and adequate hydration for all

A healthy pinch: of “enthusiasm,” with a helping attitude for first-timers
– From the first one you spot nestled down in the seagrass, to the last one of the day, you will never tire of the thrill
– Reassure first-timers that the seagrass is a fascinating environment, not a scary place, by showing them its wonders (i.e. sea stars, burrfish, spider crabs, and much, much more)
– Teach proper shucking technique with a curved blade to avoid wasted meat

Yield: A full day of memories and an incredible culinary experience.
– A limit of scallops is two gallons (in the shell) per person currently, with no more than 10 gal per boat. Ten gallons of scallops in the shell will allow you to fix a feast of scallops, prepared several ways. We like to marinate some in Italian dressing then grill on skewers, sauté a batch with garlic and butter, and deep fry some with a light breading. Throw in a fresh batch of cole slaw, some hush puppies and laughter around the table to top it off and your day will have been a true success.  Oh, I will also say that you will be thoroughly exhausted and will probably get one of your best nights of sleep since last summer’s scallop season.