Seagrasses have been described as the “nursery of the sea”. Studies show that up to 90% of the commercially valuable fish and shellfish species spend part, or all, of their lives in these submerged meadows. These grasses must grow in clear, relatively shallow waters – so they are more inshore and most of the fish living in the nursery are going to be small. There are the larger predators of this world, but most are going to be small enough to hide amongst the blades. These inshore seagrass meadows not only provide hiding places but provide food as well in the form of the tiny plants and animals that grow attached to the blades – that are called epiphytes and epizoids. Many of the fish who reside here are specialists in camouflage and mimicry.
Puffer in Seagrass
Seahorses are captivating fish and very hard to find as they blend in so well. It seems hard to call it a fish at all. Swimming vertically in the water, they seem like a creature in their own group. But they are fish. The scales are fused into an armor-plating and they have both gills and fins. Seahorses use their prehensile tail to grab onto a grass blade, hanging there waiting for tiny shrimp to swim by which they inhale using a vacuum like motion with their tube-shaped mouths.
A well-known characteristic seahorses is the fact that the males carry the fertilized eggs – not the females. Males can be identified by the brood sac on their ventral (left) side and may carry up to 80 eggs. The eggs hatch within the pouch and the young are born alive.
Puffers are a group of fish famous for their ability to inflate like a balloon when threatened. These are round bodied, slow moving fish that puff up with water or air and try to continue swimming. After the danger has passed, they simply deflate. There are stories about their flesh being poisonous and dangerous to eat – it is true. The compound they produce is one of the more toxic found in the fish world.
There are two different families of blowfish. The puffers are smaller (3-12 inches), have tubercles on their bodies instead of long spines, and the teeth in the upper and lower jaw have a space forming four teeth. The burrfish are larger in size (1-2 feet), have long spines on the body, and no median in the teeth – so only one tooth on the top jaw, one on the bottom. The most common one found is the Striped Burrfish.
If you enter a grassbed in the Sound and feel something nipping at your ankles, chances are good it is a Pinfish. They are probably feeding on small invertebrates stirred up by your movement, but they periodically nip at you as well. This small fish, typically less than eight inches, is a very common member of the inshore fish community. Pinfish are members of the Porgy family, related to sheepshead, and have incisor teeth for crushing the shells of their prey. Most locals are first introduced to them as a kid while fishing. They seem to bite, or steal, any bait you put out. Pinfish are often used as bait, but they are actually edible. They get their common name from the sharp spines of their dorsal fin. When snorkeling in the grassbeds, they are the most common fish there.
Needlefish look scarier than they are. They are long skinny fish with long skinny snouts that hold long skinny teeth. They resemble barracuda and look as if they could attack and do some damage. They are actually harmless, unless you catch one in a net and they will swing their long skinny heads towards your hand for nip. These small predators travel above the grassbeds looking for potential prey hiding among the blades. Small juvenile fish seem to be what they want. Though often just referred to as needlefish, there are actually four species – but they are hard to tell apart.