Slide Reef Fish

Spadefish © Carol Cox

REEF FISH

When most people think of reefs, they think of the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. But here in the northern Gulf the winters are too cold for many species of corals to survive. 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 because if not designed correctly, you will not get the fish assemblages and abundance desired. There is more about the extensive artificial reef system of our coast under the Coastal Barrier Island section.

 

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 and have teeth that can crush shell.

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Moray Eel © Carol Cox

Moray Eels are fish of legend. There are all sorts of stories of large morays, with needle shaped teeth, attacking divers. Some species – like the green moray – get quite large and are more common in the tropics, but have 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. 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 to protect your hands. 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.

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Grouper is usually followed by the word sandwich. One of the more popular food fish, grouper is sought by anglers and spear fishermen 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 species are called grouper while other fish in the family are sold as grouper. There are challenges to classifying grouper, but probably a lot more interest in catching one at sea or at a local restaurant.

 

An interesting thing about many fish in the serranid family 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.

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Red Grouper © Carol Cox

These are large bodied fish with broad round fins – the stuff of slowness. That said, they can explode on their prey, just like morays. Anglers who get a grouper hit know it, and divers who spear one do as well. 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 for cover – so artificial reefs make good homes for them.

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The Spadefish is one of the more common fish found around our reefs. Resembling an angelfish, they are often confused with them – but spadefish are in a family all to themselves. The dorsal fin of the spadefish is divided into two parts – one spiny, the other more fin-like. In the angelfish, there is only one continuous dorsal fin. Spadefish are bottom feeders and can get up to 36 inches long and weigh 20 pounds. They like to school, in groups up to 500 fish, and are actually good to eat.

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The Lionfish is an invader to our reefs. They are native to the Indo-Pacific or the Red Sea region and were brought here for the aquarium trade and subsequently released into the wild. The two species brought here basically look and act the same. They have a high reproductive rate – an average of 30,000 offspring every four days. This is not a typo! Lionfish also breed year-round. Being an invasive species, there are few predators and so the developing young drift with the currents to settle on new reefs where they will eat just about anything they can get into their mouths. There are no fewer than 70 species of small reef fish they consume – including the commercially valuable vermillion snapper and spiny lobster. There is even evidence they are eating other lionfish.

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They quickly take over a reef area and some of the highest densities in the south Atlantic region have been reported off Pensacola. A lot of attention has been paid to the lionfish invasion in recent years.

 

There is an organized effort to harvest them, what is known as a fishery. They are edible – actually, quite good. Derbies and eco tours have been out spear fishing for them since 2010. You may have heard they were poisonous and dangerous to eat. Actually, they are venomous, but the flesh is fine. The venom is found in the spines of the dorsal, pelvic, and anal fins. The sting is very painful, but there are no records of anyone dying from it.

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Lionfish

Among Snappers, the Red Snapper is king. Prized as a food fish all over the United States, and beyond, these fish have made commercial fishermen happy since the 1840’s. This species 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 and return with a load to sell both locally and to markets in New York. This kind of organized effort to harvest within an area that is associated with a marine population is known as a fishery. The demand for red snapper led to declines in population and smaller fish being taken. This prompted more study and regulation to try to assure that this prized fish would remain. Snapper season is a big deal around here.

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Snapper © Harry Purcell

There are 10 species of snapper locally. Though these are reef fish, snapper have a habit of feeding above, and away from, them. Due to harvesting pressure, there are short seasons on the famous red snapper – so Vermillion Snapper has stepped in as a popular commercial fish. It is very tasty. Some species, 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 makes a good meal as well.

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Red Snapper © Carol Cox

Grunts look like snapper but are a different family. Teeth are commonly used to classify animals. Snappers have canines in our upper and lower jaw, as humans do. Fish can also have teeth in their jaws, but you can also find different fish teeth in locations like the lips, tongue, mouth and throat. Snappers also have vomerine teeth, tiny teeth found in the roof of the mouth, in snapper they are in the shape of an arrow. Grunts get their name from a grunting sound they make when grinding their teeth located in the throat or pharynx together. A common inshore grunt is called the pigfish because of their sound. They do not get as large as snapper and are not popular as a food fish, but the 11 known species are quite common on our reefs. The Porkfish is one of the more beautiful fish you will see.

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Porkfish Grunt

The Triggerfish 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. This is a good example of a territorial reef fish. 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 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.

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Triggerfish © Carol Cox

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