Get to Know Your Caribbean Marine Life
by Darelle Snyman
Snappers are another group of fish that add color and variety to the underwater reef environment, ranging from colorful schools that frequent the shallows to heavy-bodied “lone wolves” that hunt offshore. These toothy members of the Lutjanidae family are popular gamefish and include some of the tastiest eating fish around.
They are called snappers for a reason: they have very sharp teeth and tend to snap their jaws open and shut with great force as a hook is being removed, a task that can end painfully if you get a finger in there.
The Yellowtail Snapper
While exploring the shallow reefs around the Caribbean you are most likely to run into the colorful Yellowtail Snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus) and the Schoolmaster Snapper (Lutjanus apodus). There is no confusion to be had when identifying the Yellowtail Snapper: it has a distinctive yellow lateral line that extends from the eye to the widely forked yellow tail. However, when you encounter them in a mixed school with the very similar looking Yellow Goatfish (Mulloidichthys martinicus) you have to look really closely to pick them out from their barbell-bearing look-alikes. These swift-moving fish have bodies that vary from bluish to olive in color and yellow spots present above the lateral line gives another clue to their identity.
They are nocturnal feeders that prey on a variety of benthic organisms such as crabs, shrimp, worms and fish. Studies have shown that once established, adult Yellowtail Snappers tend to hang around the same area for long periods, often seen swimming well above the bottom near shipwrecks.
Juveniles resemble the adults and prefer the safety of seagrass beds near shore, where they mainly feed on zooplankton.
These colorful, but wary fish make beautiful photographic subjects. Their wariness is understandable as they have many predators, such as barracuda, groupers and sharks. They have excellent eyesight and will quickly abandon an area when they spot a predator. Yellowtail Snappers are popular with recreational anglers and are typically caught in 30 to 120 feet of water around reefs. Shrimp trawlers account for a large proportion of the total fishing mortality of Yellowtail Snappers; this is because juveniles frequent the soft bottom areas known for their high shrimp populations.
When they are ready to spawn, Yellowtail Snappers form offshore aggregations and spherical eggs are released into the open water. Spawning reaches a peak mid-summer and a small oil droplet ensures that the fertilized eggs remain buoyant.
The Schoolmaster Snapper
Their equally colorful relatives, the Schoolmaster Snappers or Dogtooth Snappers, are often seen schooling in the shallows and there was no shortage of these beauties during a trip exploring the crystal clear Belizean waters. These attractive fish can be identified by their brightly colored yellow fins and sharply pointed snouts. Their bodies often bear eight light vertical bars and there is a distinctive blue horizontal streak under the eyes of young Schoolmasters that becomes less prominent with age. The name “dogtooth” relates to the presence of a notably enlarged pair of upper canines.
I found them to be less wary than their yellowtail relatives and easier to photograph as they were milling around the reef or eyeing me from the safety of ledges and overhangs. Schoolmaster Snappers often intermingle with grunts and shelter around elkhorn and gorgonian coral. Juvenile Schoolmaster Snappers prefer the safety of lagoons and the shallows near shore. Studies have shown that when they disperse at night to feed, adult Schoolmasters may increase their range to twice the daytime range, mostly by visiting seagrass beds.
This slow growing species is actually quite long-lived if it does not become part of the food chain; the maximum recorded age has been 42 years.
The Dog Snapper
More drab and wary looking members of the snapper family are the sturdy, almond-shaped Dog Snappers (Lutjanus jocu). These olive-brown fish can best be identified by the distinct white triangular bar under their eyes. Their common name relates to their somewhat fierce-looking upper canine teeth that show even when their mouths are closed, a feature shared by many of their snapper relatives. Juvenile Dog Snappers have a horizontal blue line below the eye that turns into a row of spots on the adults.
You are likely to find adult Dog Snappers drifting alone around more secluded areas of the reef. Young Dog Snappers are mainly associated with estuaries and have been known to swim up rivers. Their solitary tendencies, however, are abandoned during spawning, which typically occurs in March, mainly near Jamaica and the northeastern Caribbean. Like those of their relatives, their eggs and larvae are planktonic and dispersed by the ocean currents.
The Dog Snapper is another popular food fish but has been linked to cases of ciguatera poisoning. They are more easily caught at night when they are active, hunting for prey items such as small fish and a host of benthic invertebrates. Larval and juvenile Dog Snappers in turn are a food source for a variety of marine predators.
The Gray Snapper
The smaller Gray Snapper (Lutjanus griseus), also called the Mangrove Snapper, is another Caribbean native that is commonly targeted by anglers — its light, flaky meat is considered a delicacy.
These generally gray fish with darker dorsal and tail fins are home in a variety of habitats and they can exhibit a wide range of small spots, pale bars or fin tip coloring based on age and location. They are typically found in mangroves and near shore structures such as dock pilings and shipwrecks. They use the protection provided by the labyrinth of mangrove roots and dock pilings to hide from larger predators. Young Gray Snappers frequent inshore areas such as seagrass beds and soft, sandy bottoms. Their tolerance for different salinity levels is well known and both adults and juveniles have been caught in freshwater lakes. A juvenile Gray Snapper can be distinguished by a prominent dark stripe that extends from the snout through the eye. A less conspicuous blue stripe can be seen below the eye on the cheek.
Adult Gray Snappers are homebodies, like their yellowtail relatives, and once settled can remain in the same area for a long time; tagging studies have shown that these periods can be as long as four years.
The feeding preferences of Gray Snappers change with age: larvae feed primarily on zooplankton, juveniles prefer crustaceans and fish, and the foraging adults seek out small fishes, shrimps, crabs, gastropods and cephalopods.
The poor Gray Snappers not only have to avoid being eaten by a variety of predators, but also play host to a variety of intestinal parasites, including an ectoparasitic copepod, Caligus bonito, which can also take up residence on their bronchial cavity walls.
Due to their popularity as food fish for both recreational and commercial fishing, snapper species such as the Mutton Snapper (Lutjanus analis), Cubera Snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus) and Northeastern Red Snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) have been listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Overfishing and continued habitat destruction has made them especially so. Most snapper species now enjoy closed seasons, and bag and size limits, to ensure the sustainable harvesting of these tasty fish.
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