mystery fish

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One of the many fish that have been documented in Charlotte Harbor. Anybody know this one? Send a correct ID to Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com; all correct answers will go into a drawing for a WaterLine logo hat. Entry deadline is Jan. 10 at noon EST.

I confess: I am not a Florida native. My family moved here from Missouri back in the 1970s. Prior to our relocation, we were very avid recreational anglers who fished often and in many different lakes and rivers. If it swam in Missouri waters and would bite a hook, we probably caught it. We tallied everything from palm-sized bluegill to giant river paddlefish. I never kept a life-list of Missouri fish species, but if I suspect I’ve landed up around 15 species there.

After our family’s relocation to Punta Gorda, we were introduced to fishing in Southwest Florida. We quickly discovered that there were a lot more fish swimming around than we were accustomed to seeing. So many, in fact, that it’s possible to catch 15 species of fish in a single day here — a total which could equal the results of a lifetime of fishing in the Midwest.

The huge variety of fish that live here include creatures of many different sizes, appearances and habits. There are so many that it’s difficult to know them all. Actually, scratch that — it’s impossible to know them all, because we don’t even know how many there are.

How can we not know what lives in Charlotte Harbor? Well, the Harbor is a really big place (about 270 square miles) that contains a variety of habitats. There are deep dark waters, tidal creeks, mazes of mangrove roots, oyster beds, grassflats, and lots and lots of hidey holes, nooks and crannies.

Don’t forget about the Gulf of Mexico. Even if we could somehow wall off the Harbor and drain all the water to see what was in there, as soon as we filled it back with water new fish would swim in from the Gulf. And since we’re in the subtropics, we see fish from both temperate and tropical waters here.

So there is no absolute answer available to the question of how many species of fish live in Charlotte Harbor. But we’d like to have at least an estimate of the number so we can keep track of changes in the ecosystem. And besides, when we are entertaining wide-eyed visitors from up north, we want a better answer than “I dunno” when they ask about it so they don’t think we’re idiots.

How do you find the number of species? You could start by reviewing the specimen catalogs at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. Then you might do an exhaustive review of technical literature, which includes reports of various individuals and institutions that work with Florida’s fisheries. If you didn’t die of boredom, you’d end up with a pretty good idea of what lives in Charlotte Harbor.

But, you don’t have to. It turns out that a paper was published in 2004 by a group of co-authors who did exactly that, and actually survived the process. This paper is titled “Fishes of the Charlotte Harbor Estuarine System, Florida.” It lists a total of 255 different fish species — an impressive number.

Not so fast, though: Stuff could have changed during the 15 years since the paper was published. So I talked with Dave Blewett of the FWC Charlotte Harbor Field Lab. Dave happens to be one of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, and he confirmed that indeed the lab has identified more species of fish in Charlotte Harbor since the paper was written. Chrystal Murray, also with the Charlotte Harbor Field Lab, did a search of lab records and was able to identify 23 more species that they’ve collected since 2004.

I then talked with Rob Robbins, the collection manager for the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Division of Ichthyology, who directed me to the collection’s search function at http://bit.ly/2EWfFLv. A search there turned up only one additional species that the museum had added to it’s collection from Charlotte Harbor since 2004 from sources other that the Charlotte Harbor Field Lab.

It’s possible (perhaps even likely) that a lengthy, diligent literature review could uncover a few more species that have been documented in Charlotte Harbor since 2004 by other accepted sources, but the sources identified as described above give us a pretty good minimum number of fish species in Charlotte Harbor. So the next time somebody asks, I’m going to tell them that there are 279 species of fish that have been verified as occurring in the Charlotte Harbor estuary.

Next week: A look at what’s on the official fish list.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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