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Sea Stats – Baitfish

Sea Stats – Baitfish

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"Baitfish" is the common term given to a multitude of small, schooling fish whose main claim to fame is that they are an important food source for other fish.

This publication focuses on the six most important commercial species of baitfish in Florida: Spanish sardines, Atlantic thread herring, Gulf menhaden, round scad, bigeye scan, and ballyhoo.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/
"Baitfish" is the common term given to a multitude of small, schooling fish whose main claim to fame is that they are an important food source for other fish.

This publication focuses on the six most important commercial species of baitfish in Florida: Spanish sardines, Atlantic thread herring, Gulf menhaden, round scad, bigeye scan, and ballyhoo.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/

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Categories:Types, Brochures
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs


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aitfish” is the common term givento a multitude of small, schoolingfish whose main claim to fame isthat they are an important food sourcefor other fish. This large and diversegroup of fishes is an integral part ofthe complex, interconnected marine food web. Baitfishare used in a variety of products such as fish meal, oil,pet food, and fertilizer and are, of course, used as bait.Regardless of the purpose of the catch, baitfish harvestssupport the state’s lucrative and popular fishingindustries, both recreational and commercial.
Fifty species of baitfish exist worldwide, at least twodozen in Florida. Baitfish include such diverserepresentatives as the 4-inch anchovy and the yard-long ladyfish, a relative of the mighty tarpon. Becausemany of these species are similar in appearance,distinguishing one from another can be an exasperatingexercise. This situation is further complicated by thefact that most species have been endowed with avariety of descriptive, but often regionally specific,nicknames. Menhaden, for instance, are known as“pogies” in the Gulf of Maine but south of Cape Codmay have common names such as “alewives,”“fatbacks,” “razorbellies,” and “mossbunkers.”In this publication, the discussion focuses on thesix most important commercial species of baitfish inFlorida: Spanish sardines, Atlantic thread herring, Gulfmenhaden, round scad, bigeye scad, and ballyhoo(along with its close relative, balao).
Spanish sardines
Spanish sardines (
Sardinella aurita
)are a type of herring. They have along, torpedo-shaped silvery bodywith a dark blue back, a roundedbelly, a deeply forked tail fin, and a single dorsal fin.Spanish sardines may reach 9 inches in length.
Thread herring
Atlantic thread herring (
Opisthonema oglinum
) are themost common Florida herring. They have a rotundbody, a deeply curved belly, and a pointed head. Theircommon name refers to the long ray that trails from theback of their lone dorsal fin like a piece of thread.Silvery with a bluish or greenish back, thread herringhave a dark spot above their gill covers and another darkspot behind, which is often followed by an entire rowof dark spots. Six or seven streaks are present along theirsides. They may grow to 8 inches and are also called“horse minnow,” “hairy back,” “grassy back,” and“greenback.”
Marine Middlemen
Baitfish are the most abundant fishes in many of the state’s estuaries; the most abundant baitfish isthe anchovy, of which there are many species.
Diane Peebles
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionFish and Wildlife Research Institute
Diane Peebles
Gulf menhaden (
Brevoortia patronus
) grow to about 9 or10 inches and are silvery with a dark blue-green backand yellow-green fins. A dark spot behind the gill cavityis about even with the eye. Some adults have additionalspots on their sides. These fish have a pudgy,compressed body and have enlarged scales that extendfrom the mid-section to the dorsal fin. Their oily fleshmakes them a popular choice for use in producing fishoil, meal, and fertilizer; they are also a popular bait forthe Gulf Coast blue crab fishery. Menhaden are alsocalled “fatback,” “bugfish,” “razorbelly,” “alewife,”“mossbunker,” “pogy,” and “shad.”
Ballyhoo and balao
Ballyhoo (
Hemiramphus brasilensis
) and balao (
H. balao
)are members of a group of fishes known as halfbeaks,for their small, beaklike mouths. These fish are foundthroughout the state but are most abundant in southFlorida, where they are often seen skipping along thesurface of coastal or ocean waters. Ballyhoo and balaoare landed together and sold as “ballyhoo.” Both speciesare equally acceptable for use as bait. Anglers considerhalfbeaks prime bait for sailfish, dolphin, and wahoo.Ballyhoo are silvery with a greenish back, and theupper lobe of their tail fin is yellowish-orange. Balao aresilvery with a bluish back, and the upper lobe of theirtail fin is bluish-violet and has a red tip. For bothspecies, the single dorsal fin is set far back on the fish’sback, near the deeply forked tail. The lower jaw elon-gates into a flat blade with an orange-red tip. Ballyhoogrow to 16 inches and are generally bigger than balao.
Round scad (
Decapterus punctatus
) derive their nickname“cigar minnows” from their long, cigarlike shape. Theirnarrow and stretched-out body is dark on top, shadingto silver on the belly, and has black spots along the fronthalf of the lateral line. These fish have a deeply forkedtail fin and two separate, deeply notched dorsal fins.This species is one of the few baitfish species thathave spines, which in round scad are particularlysharp, so these baitfish should be handled cautiously.Round scad grow to 9 inches and are also known as“cigarfish” and “hardtail.”
Bigeye Scad
Bigeye scad (
Selar crumenophthalmus
) are also knownas “goggle eyes” because of their large eyes, which aregreater in diameter than the snout length. These fishhave two widely separated fleshy tabs on the inside ofthe rear edge of the gill chamber, and scutes are presentonly on the rear part of the lateral line. Bigeye scad donot have detached dorsal or anal finlets and can growto 2 feet, but they are usually less than 1 foot.Although these six species are directly targeted bycommercial fishermen, many other types of baitfish aretaken incidentally as bycatch in baitfish nets or areharvested when the primary target species is scarce.Other minor fisheries include yellowfin menhaden,anchovies, scaled sardine, Gulf killifish, sheepsheadminnow, Atlantic bumper, pinfish, and silversides.Fingerling mullet are also a component of the baitfishfishery in some areas.
Diane PeeblesDiane PeeblesDiane PeeblesDiane Peebles
Range and Habitat
Except for menhaden—which may move into theuppermost reaches of estuaries—the other of Florida’stop six baitfish species typically reside in nearshorewaters from the lower sections of estuaries to 90 milesoffshore. Although baitfish can be found in waters 150feet deep or more, commercial netters usually focus theirefforts closer to shore, in waters 20 to 60 feet deep.Spanish sardines and Atlantic thread herring arefound throughout Florida waters, although their fisheriesare located mostly in and off the Tampa Bay region.Although ballyhoo also occur statewide, the fisheryfor them is located primarily in south Florida fromMiami to Key West. Round scad are caught mainly innorthern Florida. Bigeye scad range from the northernGulf of Mexico to southeastern Brazil and Bermuda, butare found worldwide in warm waters. As their nameimplies, Gulf menhaden are residents of the Gulf ofMexico and are found throughout west coast watersfrom the Panhandle to Florida Bay. Other menhadenspecies occur in the Gulf of Mexico and in the AtlanticOcean, and occasionally they even crossbreed(hybridize) when they occur together.
Life Cycle and Behavior
Spanish sardines and thread herring are plankton-eaters, equipped with special structures called gillrakers that enable them to filter suspended matterfrom the water. Most baitfish will, however, also eatsmall crabs, shrimp, and fish.Baitfish migrate seasonally, moving north and southor into and away from shore. They do this in responseto temperature changes or for spawning. They may alsouse habitats such as mangroves or seagrass beds forcover, and they appear to be attracted to structures suchas piers.Baitfish are fast-growing fish that rarely live longerthan four years. Some, such as ballyhoo, balao, andscaled sardines, live only about one to two years.Fortunately, because their existence is so fleeting andprecarious, baitfish usually mature at about one yearof age and spawn frequently. Except for menhaden,which spawn in or near the mouths of estuaries, all ofthe commercially important species travel to oceanicwaters to spawn. Most spawning takes place in watersfrom 30 to 165 feet deep, but eggs and larvae have beencollected from even deeper waters.Spawning seasons vary with the species. Gulfmenhaden spawn in the fall and winter, but mostbaitfish spawn in the spring and summer. Each femalecan produce from 30,000 to 80,000 eggs and mayspawn several times in a season.The eggs of menhaden usually hatch into larvaewithin a few days of being fertilized. Menhaden larvaegrow rapidly and are carried by currents to estuaries,where they will remain until they become full-fledgedjuveniles. When they mature, usually by the end of theirfirst year, they begin moving offshore to join large schoolsand spawn. Baitfish die at extremely high rates from bothnatural and human-related causes, and the majoritycaught by anglers are only one or two years old.As juveniles, baitfish join large schools and spendalmost their entire lives in these tightly packedformations. The size of some of these schools can beawe-inspiring, and their ability to move as one unit, withthe precision of synchronized swimmers, is remarkable.When frightened, baitfish in a school can dart off at a90-degree angle in a flash, with each member turningas if on cue. Baitfish schools generally stay near thebottom during the day and rise to midwater or thesurface at night to feed.Individuals seem to derive some protection from thissafety-in-numbers tactic because schooling behavioroften helps baitfish avoid being eaten by the multitudesof marine creatures larger than they are. A large schoolmay confuse predators: viewed as a whole, the well-organized unit can appear to be one very intimidatingcreature! Scientists speculate that schooling behaviormay sustain a population by increasing the probabilityof successful reproduction and by enhancing each
Baitfish schools appear tighter and more compact during daytime hours and more dispersed at night.Thread herring migrating from North Carolina toFlorida were estimated to travel at the rate of  six to seven miles per day.

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