We are fortunate to have several whale species that have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico including humpback whales, Rice whales, fin whales, sperm whales, sei whales, and orca whales. Recently, however, we have seen multiple reports of whale sharks near shore in Destin and Panama City Beach.
Whale sharks, however, are not whales, but the largest shark species and the largest fish alive today. Whale sharks aren’t even closely related to whales. They have gills, not blow holes. They are huge, up to 46 feet in length and weigh up to 22,000 lbs., the weight of two African elephants. Despite their large size, they are filter feeders with plankton being their main food, although they are also known to eat squid, krill, and small baitfish. They glide through the water at speeds of less than 3 m/hr, gently swinging their bodies side to side. They are not aggressive and pose no threats to humans.
Whale sharks prefer warm water, which is why they can be found in tropical areas and are often attracted to coastal areas due to a higher abundance of food. It’s no surprise, then, that they have been spotted in the Gulf. June to October is whale shark season in the Gulf, with Destin sightings being reported previously in 2013 and 2020. They are also found in many other countries around the world including Mozambique, Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Australia, Belize, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico, Seychelles, and the Maldives.
Unsurprisingly, many ocean lovers are desperate to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures in the water. However, experts recommend a hands-off policy for these gentle sea creatures. The Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team has been collaborating with NOAA scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi to tag 10 of this year’s visitors to gain valuable insights into their migratory patterns and habitat use. You can follow their Facebook page for updates on current locations and tracking data. https://www.facebook.com/whalesharkresearch
Florida has a great variety of turtles. Actually, the species richness here is higher than any other state – though Alabama may argue. Many are familiar to us. If we have not seen them, we have at least heard of them. But that may not be the case with map turtles.
Map turtles are in the same family as many of the common ponds turtles but are in the genus Graptemys. The patterns on their shells and skin are beautiful and they have raised scutes along the midline of their shells giving them a “sawback” or “dinosaur” look. They are associated with alluvial rivers due to their diet of shellfish, which cannot be found in the low pH waters of tannic rivers. To our west, in Alabama and Mississippi, there are several species of them. And as you move up into the Mississippi valley and into the Midwest, there are even more. But here in Florida there are only two. Let’s meet them.
The Barbour’s Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri) is associated with the Apalachicola River system. First discovered in the Chipola River, it has now been found in the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Apalachicola River systems, as well as the Choctawhatchee and Pea Rivers. It may have been introduced to the Ochlockonee and Wacissa.
Female map turtles are much larger than the males, and the female Barbour’s Map is the largest of all map turtles – with a carapace length of 33cm (13 in.). She has a very broad head (8cm, 3in. wide) to crush the shells of her favorite prey – snails. The males only reach 13cm (5in.) carapace length and their heads are much narrower. Barbour’s Maps prefer flowing rivers with limestone outcrops. These outcrops support the snails they like to eat. That said, they have been found in high numbers within the silty channels of these rivers.
Females take many years to mature, possibly as long as 14. Males mature in 3-4 years. Breeding begins in the spring and nesting begins in late April but will continue into August. Like most turtles, they seek out sandy beaches where they will lay multiple clutches of 7-10 eggs over the span of the nesting season.
Fallen trees (snags) are important basking areas and map turtles use them frequently. During the cooler months, and low water periods along the river, they will hide in deep pockets within the limestone rock. Their home range along the rivers are between 250 and 1500 meters (74 and 441 feet), with males having a larger range. Other than nesting, activity on land is not common.
Their populations seem to be stable, though they are protected by FWC and possession without a permit is illegal. Harvest does still happen, and the activity known as “plinking” (shooting them off their basking logs) occurs as well. Nest depredation, and the killing of adults, by raccoons is common. Crows are another threat.
The Escambia Map Turtle (Graptemys ernsti) is associated with the Escambia River. With the Florida section of this river only being 54 miles long, it has the most restricted range of any turtle in the state. That said, along these stretches of river, it is one of the more abundant turtles. Paddling a lower section of the Escambia I counted an average of 11 individuals per basking log. It has been found in the Yellow and Shoal Rivers as well. But due to the lower pH and lack of mollusks, they are not found in the nearby Blackwater and Perdido Rivers.
Like all map turtles, it has beautiful markings on the shell and head. Like all map turtles, it has the characteristic “sawback” appearance down the middle of the carapace. Like all map turtles, the females are much larger than the males. However, the female of this species is not as large as the female Barbour’s Map – with a carapace length of 28cm (11in.).
The males of this species feed on a variety of insects but the females stay with the characteristic molluscan diet. The introduced Asiatic clam (Corbicula fluminea) is a particular favorite. Breeding occurs in the spring and nesting area are sandbars found along the river’s edge. These turtles are having problems with ATVs using such nesting areas, the removal of snag basking trees, and plinking. There are also concerns with the building of dams along the Alabama portion of the river. They are protected by FWC, and you cannot possess them without a permit.
With only two species of map turtles in the entire state, and both only found in the panhandle, these are unique species to the rich variety of turtles found here.
As I write this, we are in the middle of our 2023 Scallop Search, an event we do each year to assess whether the scallops in Pensacola Bay are trying to make a comeback on their own. Each year I am amazed at how popular this little mollusk is. On the day I am writing, I will be working with a marine science class from the University of Southern Mississippi driving over from Ocean Springs. This past weekend I worked with two families who trailered their boat from Enterprise Alabama to participate. Those on the eastern end of the panhandle are well aware of the popularity of this creature. Folks from all over the southeast travel there to go scalloping. Many of the locals in my area, when I am training them how to do a scallop search, tell me that they head east and go scalloping every year. Some even have condos for that week and it is a large part of their annual vacation plans. And many of the locals here would love to see them return to Pensacola Bay.
This is a creature that draws a lot of attention. But most know very little about it. They know it has small eyes and can swim – actually… I have recently found that not everyone knows they can swim. We know they like grassbeds and they can be harvested in the summer. They may have done this long enough to know the prime spots within the grassbeds to search for them – their “sweet spots”. But not much more.
So… let’s meet the bay scallop.
Its scientific name is Argopecten irradians. It is a mollusk in the class Bivalvia and the family Pectinidae. There are numerous species, and the group is found all over the world. The greatest variety of them are from the Indo-Pacific region, and in each case, they are a popular seafood. Most can swim, though erratically – they are not Michael Phelps – and they use this ability to avoid predators such as starfish, which they can see with the set of simple eyes.
There are five subspecies of A. irradians. A. irradians irradians, known as the bay scallop, or Atlantic Bay scallop (and from here is just “the scallop”) is our local variety. It is found from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. They begin life as a microscopic egg produced during the mass spawning of the hermaphroditic parents (hermaphroditic meaning each parent can produce sperm and egg). The timing of the release of gametes is triggered by warming water and usually occurs in the late summer/early fall. This early egg stage sinks to the bottom where it remains for a few weeks before hatching.
The hatched larva remain microscopic, are transparent, resemble the parents, and are called spat. The spat become part of the plankton in local estuaries but eventually return to the grass in what is called “spatfall” where they attached to the seagrasses using byssal threads. They continue to grow, eventually release from the grass, and become the scallops we all know and love. Many species of scallops can live over 20 years, but our local one only lives for one.
As most know, adult scallops have two shells (bivalves) connected at the hinge on the dorsal side of the animal. Though they do add weight to the shell, a disadvantage for a swimmer, the “ribs” provide a sturdier shell. The two shells are connected by a single, large adductor muscle, which is used to open and close the valves during swimming. It is this adductor muscle we eat when consuming scallops.
Like all bivalves, scallops are filter feeders but unlike most bivalves they lack siphons to draw water in and out of the digestive tract. Rather they lie with their valves slightly gaped and allow water to pass over them. Plankton is collected by a mucous layer and then moved to the gut by cilia (small hair-like structures) where it is digested.
Like all bivalves, scallops lack a brain as we know it but rather function using a series of ganglia (groups of nerve cells) connected to a nerve ring. These ganglia can control movement of the muscle, gills, eyes, and are connected to a statocyst, which tells the scallop how it is oriented in the water column.
There are numerous eyes aligned along the edge of each valve that can detect movement and shadows. It is believed that they use their eyes to detect potential predators and possibly initiate the swimming behavior they are famous for.
Living only one year, and reaching maximum size in late summer during spawning, scallop harvesting is regulated to that time of year in Florida. Once common from Pensacola to Miami, they are now only found in large numbers in the Big Bend region. Due to the loss of scallops in other areas, many visit the Big Bend each year to go scalloping, putting heavy harvest pressure on those stocks. There have been efforts to try and enhance the existing populations as well as restore historic ones. Here in Pensacola Bay, Florida Sea Grant works with volunteers to monitor the water quality and seagrasses, as well as assess how the few existing scallops are doing.
For more information on panhandle scallops, contact your local Sea Grant Agent at the county extension office.
When snorkeling the grassbeds of the Florida panhandle encountering a reptile has a low probability, but it is not zero. Of all the reptiles that call this part of the state home, few enter marine waters and most of those are very mobile, moving up and down the coast heading from one habitat to another. In fact, there are no marine reptiles that would be considered residents of our seagrasses, only transients.
The one species that you might encounter is the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). This is the largest of the “shelled” sea turtles and has a vegetarian diet. With a serrated lower jaw, they can be found grazing in the seagrass beds feeding on both the grasses and the species of algae found there. The carapace length of these large reptiles can reach four feet and they can weigh up to 400 pounds. Their coloration is similar to that of the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) but their heads are smaller and there are only two large scutes between the eyes rather than the four found in the loggerheads. The colors of the skin and shell have shades of brown, yellow, orange, and some black and can be quite beautiful. The name “green” sea turtle comes from the color of their internal fatty tissue. Feeding on a diet of seagrasses, it becomes green in color, and this was discovered by early fishermen who hunted and consumed this species. It is the one used most often in what is called turtle soup and is actually farmed for this dish in other countries.
Like all sea turtle species, they are born on the Gulf side of our barrier islands. If they successfully hatch, they work their way to the open water and spend their early years in the open sea. Some have been associated with the mats of Sargassum weed floating offshore, feeding on the variety of small invertebrates that live out there. They will also nip at the Sargassum itself. As juveniles they will move back into the coastal estuaries where they begin their vegetarian lifestyle. As adults they will switch time between the open sea and the grass filled bays. Once unfortunate side effect of feeding in our grassbeds is the frequency of boat strikes. There are tens of thousands of motored vessels speeding through our grassbeds and the turtles surfacing for air can be targets for them. Our hope is that more mariners are aware of this problem and will be more vigilant when recreating there.
Another turtle who IS a resident of the estuary is the much smaller diamondback terrapin. Though terrapins much prefer salt marshes they will enter seagrass beds, and some spend quite a bit of time there. Terrapins prefer to feed on shellfish so, moving through the grassbeds it is the snails and bivalves they seek. Because of their size they feed on the smaller mollusk. A typical terrapin will have a carapace length of about 10 inches and may weigh two pounds. They will take small crabs and shrimps when the opportunity is there, and they are known to swim into submerged crab traps seeking the bait. Unfortunately, being air breathing reptiles, they will drown after becoming entrapped. It is now required that all recreational crab traps in Florida have bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) on each of the funnel openings to reduce this problem. Many studies, both here in Florida and elsewhere, have shown these BRDs do not significantly reduce crab catch and so you can still enjoy crabbing – just not while catching terrapins. Encountering one snorkeling would be a very rare event, but – particularly in the eastern panhandle – has happened.
A third reptile that has been seen in our grassbeds is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Preferring freshwater systems, encounters with alligators in an open seagrass bed are rare, but do happen. There are plenty of freshwater ponds on some of our barrier islands that the alligators will use. They have been seen swimming out into the seagrass beds and often will cross the bay, or Intracoastal Waterway, to mainland side. They have also been seen swimming near shore in the Gulf of Mexico. Though they can tolerate saltwater, they have a low tolerance for it and do not spend much time there.
Alligators are top level carnivores feeding on a variety of wildlife. Like most predators, they tend to seek and capture the easiest prey. Most often these are fish, reptiles, or small mammals. But they will take on large birds or deer if the opportunity presents itself. Despite their natural fear of humans, they have taken pets and also have attacked humans.
Having only canines in their mouths, they must grab the prey and swallow it. Lacking molars, they cannot chew. So, more often than not, they select prey they can swallow whole. If they do grab a larger animal, they are known to drown the creature in what has been termed the “death role” and cache it beneath the water under a log (or some structure) where it will soften to a point where they can cut small pieces and swallow it. All of the alligators I have seen in our grassbeds were definitely heading somewhere. They were not spending time there. After heavy rains the salinity may drop enough to where they can tolerate being out there longer and encounters could increase. But they are still rare.
I will mention here that there are several species of snakes that, like the alligator, are swimming from one suitable habitat to another – crossing the seagrass in route. All snakes can swim and encounters in brackish water are not unheard of. I have several photos of diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) swimming across the Intracoastal Waterway between the mainland and the islands.
Encounters with reptiles are rare in our seagrass beds but pretty exciting when they do occur. There is certainly no need to fear swimming or snorkeling in our bay because they are so rare. But maybe one day you will be one of the lucky ones who does see one.
Summertime always makes me think of the supermarket. At least one time each of the past few summers, I clearly remember being at the supermarket during a rainstorm and watching the water wash over the parking lot, talking with all the other people debating whether to run to their car with a buggy full of food. Supermarkets, home goods stores, medical facilities, libraries, and shopping centers all provide important services that we depend on for our everyday life, but their development has altered the natural processes that control the movement of water from the landscape to creeks and ultimately to the bays and bayous around us (collectively referred to as receiving waters). Concrete, asphalt, and building roof surfaces are impervious, meaning that water cannot pass through them. As a result, more water washes off the rooftops, parking lots, driveways, and roads than before the area was developed. Less water sinks into the ground to move slowly toward receiving waters and to recharge aquifers. More impervious surface leads to more runoff to receiving waters, resulting in greater erosion and higher levels of pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, and silt in these waterways. These extra pollutants from the landscape and from eroding stream banks have harmful effects many types of organisms that call these waterways home.
New development in Florida is required to include features that “treat” a fraction of the surface water that runs off impervious surfaces before flowing into receiving waters. Treating surface water runoff means holding it back and preventing it from running quickly off the developed landscape; as it is held back, some pollutants may settle out or be consumed by plants. Treatment is commonly accomplished through features like dry retention basins or wet detention ponds, where water is stored and then slowly moves through soil pathways toward receiving waters. These features are common parts of our developed landscape: the big pond behind the supermarket or in front of the new truck stop, or the grassy pit next to the gas station. While these satisfy regulations, they occupy a considerable amount of land, typically are aesthetically lacking, and may not actually reduce pollutant runoff or stormwater volume as intended. They also can be neglected and become a nuisance in the landscape.
Nature-based stormwater infrastructure projects can play an important role in protecting communities in northwest Florida from the effects of heavy rainfall that occurs periodically in the region. Nature-based stormwater projects are designed primarily to incorporate the natural processes of infiltration that occur in undeveloped areas in the developed landscape, treating stormwater by reducing volumes of surface runoff and concentrations of pollution that could otherwise flow directly into receiving waters. Depending on their design, these features can also provide aesthetic enhancements that can increase the value of properties and the overall wellbeing of the communities where they are implemented. When used in coordination, nature-based projects such as roadside treatment swales, bioretention cells, rain gardens, green roofs, and porous pavement can provide similar levels of stormwater treatment as dry retention basins and detention ponds while also enhancing the aesthetic, recreational, or functional potential of the landscape.
Local government and extension staff across northwest Florida are working to introduce more nature-based stormwater projects into the panhandle landscape. To learn more about recent demonstration projects that have been implemented in our region, visit the WebGIS project https://arcg.is/1SWXTm0.
When visiting and exploring seagrass beds, most are hoping, and expecting, to see fish. As we have seen in this series, there are a lot of creatures that can be found living within a seagrass meadow, but it is the fish that get our attention and what we talk most about afterwards.
According to Hoese and Moore’s Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters, there are 497 species of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico. In my surveys of Pensacola Bay over the years, I have logged 101 of those in the estuary. I am sure there are more, but I can confirm there are at least those. Many spend all or part of their time in our seagrasses. As you seine or snorkel in the grassbeds you will notice most of them are very small. Much of this is due to the fact that the seagrasses are nursery areas for many species, and it is the young that we find here. But many are also small as adults, and the grass provides food and shelter for them. There are far too many to mention in an article like this, but let’s look at some of them.
Sardines and Anchovies
As you snorkel through the grass, or even look at it from a boat or dock, you see numerous silver colored baitfish flashing as they dart in and out of the grass. There are all sorts of silver baitfish in the seagrasses with sardines and anchovies being two of them. In my experience seining for fish, they appear to be seasonal. I did not capture them all year but when I did, I would capture a lot. These species are famous for being the ones in small tins that people consume, though there is no fishery for them here locally. Anchovies have also been considered an indicator species; their presence suggests good water quality.
Also known as silversides and glass minnows, these are one of the most common fish collected in seine nets. They are abundant year-round and are an important food source for many of the larger predators living here. Small and transparent, you do not see them while snorkeling. Their huge presence is only discovered when you pull a seine net through the grass. There are several species of them, but they are not easily identified and more often are just logged as “silversides”. They are an important member of the seagrass community.
Seahorses and Pipefish
These two fish are highly specialized for living in seagrasses. They look like grass and move very little making them hard to detect. Like silverside minnows, it is rare to see them while snorkeling but make their presence known when seining. Their bodies are covered in armor-like scales, and they have tubed mouths for “vacuuming” small invertebrates from the water column. They are very slow swimmers and have to avoid detection by blending in with the environment. And yes, it is the males that carry the eggs in their brood pouches. These are amazing fish and always bring excitement when they are captured in the net. There are two species of seahorses and seven species of pipefish found in our waters.
Often called “bull minnows” by anglers, these small fish are, at times, very abundant. There are seven species of killifish in our bays but the Gulf Killifish, Longnose Killifish, and the Bayou Killifish are the ones we most often collected.
These are common, frequently seen, fish swimming at the surface of the water. Long and needle-shaped, these fish have long snouts full of sharp teeth indicating they are one of the predators of this system. There are four species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They are harmless to humans unless you capture them in your net at which time they will try to bite.
Another very common fish found year-round here. This species are the ones famous for jumping while you are fishing, paddling, or just watching from the beach. Those who do not visit the Gulf coast often always ask “I just saw a fish jump!” and the reply from a local (without even looking up to see what it was) will reply “It’s a mullet”. These schooling fish can get pretty large (average length is 30 inches) and it is common to see fishermen out with their cast nets trying to catch a few. It is a popular food fish for those along the Gulf coast. Mullet fries, with beans and grits, are a way of life here. The fish are easily seen swimming and darting over the grass as you paddle by, and their young are found seasonally in seine nets. They are bottom feeders, feeding mostly on algae from the grass blades. There are actually two species, the white and the striped mullet. The striped mullet, also known as the black mullet, is the one most often sold in the seafood markets.
Drums and Croakers
With 18 species within this family, this is the largest family of inshore fish in the Gulf. Growing up along the panhandle people learn quickly about croakers. Back in the day when gill nets were used to harvest mullet, croakers were a common catch as well, and often consumed. Today they are still sought by some shore-based anglers and juveniles are common in seine nets. The species I most often captured were the spot and Atlantic croaker. Spot croakers were common year-round, Atlantic croakers were more seasonal.
Drums are larger members of this family. There are several species more associated with sandy bottoms and the shoreline of the Gulf, many of these are called whiting, but the red drum (redfish) and black drum can be found in the grassbeds. Redfish are particularly common here and one of the reasons many anglers get out of bed in the morning. They are very popular sportfish across the region. Black drums are not found as often, and like being around pilings and structures that offer certain foods they prefer. Both species can get quite large. Redfish average 5 feet while black drums can reach an average of 3 feet.
All of the fish in this family are famous for their “croaking” “drum” sounds they make using their swim bladder, and it is rare not to capture at least one kind in a seine net.
Spotted Seatrout; Speckled Trout; “Specks”
There is no “trout family” in the fish world. Most freshwater trout are members of the salmon family while the marine versions are members of the drum/croaker family. This is the case with the famous speckled trout – or speck. There are white trout and silver seatrout in this family, and all are sought after by anglers, but it is the speckled trout that is most associated with seagrasses, most sought after by anglers, and is one of the top predators in this system. They reach an average length of 4 feet.
Pinfish and Sheepshead
From my experience both snorkeling and seining the grasses, I would say – hands down – that pinfish is the most common species found in our grasses. For many young anglers this is the first fish they ever catch. You can see them easily while snorkeling and they are the most numerous species in the nets throughout the year. Their huge numbers play an important role in the food web of this system. Feeding on a variety of small invertebrates in and around the grass blades, pinfish are a large part of the diet of the larger sportfish we target. Throwing cast nets and dropping pinfish traps is popular with anglers to collect this abundant baitfish for their life bait fishing efforts. They are called pinfish because of the sharp spines in their dorsal fins. These are also the fish that nip at your ankles while you are standing still in the water.
Sheepsheads are larger members of the porgy family (the ones these two species belong to). As adults sheepsheads prefer hard structure where they can use their incisors to chip away at barnacles and other shellfish, but they are sometimes found roaming the grassbeds and their young will spend their growing years hiding and feeding in the grass.
When first captured in the seine net, pigfish are often confused with pinfish – they look very similar. But a closer look at the striping/spotted pattern on their sides, and the position of their mouth, you realize you have something different. Being members of the grunt family, they also “croak” like croakers and drums – hence their common name “pigfish” – due to the grunting sounds. This helps with identifying which fish you have. Though common in the grasses, I did not catch these as frequently as pinfish and they were not as abundant.
This is a common silver baitfish that resembles the pinfish and is frequently collected in our seine nets. The mojarra is in a different family than pinfish. They lack sharp spines and incisor teeth, rather they have a sort of “vacuum” like mouth which they use to suck small invertebrates from the sand.
This is a popular sport and commercial fish from the wrecks and reefs of the Gulf of Mexico. But gags begin their lives in the seagrass beds, and we have collected medium sized individuals in our seine nets. This underscores the importance of these grassbeds to the fisheries so many love. We need to protect these systems from our activity both on land and in the water.
Another popular group with anglers, many species of jacks use these grasses as their nurseries. We most often collected juvenile lookdowns, pompano, and crevalle in our nets. At times we caught a small member of the family called a leatherjacket. These were seasonal and associated with breeding. Once again, underscoring the importance of having healthy seagrasses.
One of the creeper looking fish in the seagrass community is the Gulf toadfish (also known as the oyster dog). This monstrous looking bottom fish lives in burrows scattered around the grassbeds where they lie in wait to ambush prey. Their large mouths and sharp teeth can grab a variety of creatures, including the human finger. At times small toadfish will move into an empty can or bottle discarded by people instead of a burrow where they grow to a size they can no longer escape. It is said there may be a mild venom associated with their bite. Though no one has ever died, or been sent to the hospital, due their bite, it is painful and should be avoided.
Yes, barracuda can be found in seagrasses. But in our case, these have all been juveniles. There are three species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They also appeared to be seasonal in our collections. We never found them high numbers, usually one or two in a seine. But they are present.
This is another medium sized, sharp toothed, bottom dwelling predator of the grassbed community. There are seven species of them, and all have that “snake” “lizard” look to them having many sharp canine teeth. They spend their time buried in the sand waiting to ambush potential prey. Snorkelers may see them as they dart away tossing up sand when we get too close. I rarely see them snorkeling but occasionally capture them in the seine net to the delight of the students assisting.
Blennies and Gobies
These are very small fish that are almost impossible to find while snorkeling but are often collected in the seine net. They resemble the freshwater darters and, lacking a swim bladder, spend their time on the bottom. There are many species associated with rocks and artificial reefs but there are some who call the seagrasses home. They use their incisor teeth to feed on small invertebrates in and on the grasses. Being territorial, they can give a little nip to your hand. Gobies differ from blennies in that their two pelvic fins are fused together to form a sort of “cup” or “sucker disk”.
Another one of the more popular fish with students who help me seine. Everyone loves to see them inflate with either water or air into a “balloon” to make it very difficult for predators to consume them. There are eight species of puffers in the Gulf of Mexico, five of them have been captured in our seines. Most are small with little “bumps” on their bodies instead of spines. But there is the Burrfish, who is a member of a different family that is medium sized, has spines, and is very common in the grassbeds.
Our grassbeds are full of a small cousin to the triggerfish – the planehead filefish. Like triggerfish, filefish have a thick sharp spine that is found at the front of the dorsal fin – called a “trigger” on the triggerfish. The planehead filefish is a small species (nine inches average length), green to brown in color, and very common in the grassbeds; though you will probably not see one unless you catch it in a net.
Flounders and Soles
A favorite food fish for many locals, flounders spend a lot of time buried in the sand near grassbeds to ambush prey. Born with a typical fish design, early in development one of their eyes will move to the other side of the head, giving them two eyes on one side. By doing this, they have increased their binocular vision, improving their ability to judge accurate distance of the prey, and making hunting easier. They lose color on the side where the eye has left and have chromatophores (cells) on the side where the eyes are that, like octopus and squid, allow them to change colors and blend in. In our part of the Gulf, if the eyes move to the left side of the head, they are called flounders. If they move to the right, they are called soles. Soles in our part of the Gulf of small not of much interest to anglers. One small species is often collected by shrimpers who feed them to hogs. This sole can “cup” their body in defense making like a suction cup and they do this in the throat of the hogs sometimes killing them. They are called “hogchokers”. Flounders on the other hand are very popular with anglers. Some fish for them using rod and reel, others prefer gigging them at night using lanterns. There are 17 species of flounder, some reaching lengths of three feet.
Tonguefish are small flat fish with eyes on one side of their heads like flounder. They differ than that their tails come to a point and there is no caudal fin present, as there is in flounders. As mentioned, they are small – ranging from 3 to 8 inches in length. The Blackcheek tonguefish is particularly common in our grassbeds. But like so many, you will not see it unless you catch it in a net.
This is a very popular gamefish from south Florida associated with several habitats including grassbeds. Due to a process some call “tropicalization” – the movement of tropical species north due to climate change – snook are now, albeit in small numbers, reported in the Florida panhandle. This is a new species you may see while exploring or fishing out there.
There are many more species of fish found in our grassbeds we could talk about, but we will end it here. As we mentioned in the beginning, this is a group of animals that many come to the beach to find. Whether for fun or for food, finding fish makes for a good day. See how many different species you can find.