A snapper bluefish caught in New York Harbor by the author
By Joe Reynolds
New York Harbor Nature Blog
For bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), a native predator fish in New York Harbor and surrounding tidal waters, October means just one thing - it’s time to gorge on large schools of baitfish.
Renowned for their fighting ability, bluefish have voracious appetites and is a frenzied eater. They will travel in large schools to feed predominantly on menhaden, herring, or on any prey they can capture. Bluefish are visual feeders, often hunting in large schools during the daytime to attack anything that moves or slightly resembles food, such as a human foot or thumb.
Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, and the first Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for the United States Fish Commission, writing in the 1870's, estimated that large schools of bluefish annually consumed “at least twelve hundred million fish during the four summer months off southern New England” which he was present in Woods Hole, MA. This might have been an overestimation, since modern scientific tools were not present to accurately count fish, but large schools of bluefish do have aggressive feeding habits and are frequently known to demolish enormous schools of baitfish.
Decades later, prominent wildlife scientists Henry B. Bigelow and William Schroeder, wrote the Fishes of the Gulf of Maine published in 1953 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They called bluefish the “most ferocious and bloodthirsty fish in the sea, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and mangled mackerel, menhaden, herring, alewives, etc, on all of which it preys.”
With all due respect to striped bass, the unofficial saltwater fish of New York Harbor, pound for pound the bluefish is the finest and fiercest fighting fish in local tidal waters. Forget the detractors. If they can’t appreciate the fight and ferocious nature of a bluefish, it's their loss, right?
Bluefish are tough fighting fish with a ravenous appetite. The blues will feed heavily in October before their migration southward to Cape Hatteras during the winter, but sometimes will swim even farther south to Florida or Cuba. Bluefish are generally warm-water fish that prefer temperatures higher than 55 degrees F. In order to fuel a time-consuming aquatic migration, the fish must eat relentlessly on various species of baitfish including menhaden or bunker, which historically formed large schools during their own southbound migrations.
Some of the best surf fishing occurs in October, especially for bluefish, before water temperatures get too cold and when the water is churned up by tropical storms and other wind-blown storms and rough weather. Bluefish love the whitewater and hard-pulling currents. Hard winds from the northeast or east often push not only water but thousands of tiny baitfish, such as bay anchovies or silversides into the shallows where they have trouble swimming in the rough unsettled waters.
But these rough and rowdy waters are no problem for bluefish. They are incredibly strong fish with torpedo-shaped bodies that are able to slice though the water with great speed. Their closest relatives belong to the family Carangidae, which include jacks and pompanos, and other hard fighting, fast swimming, and feisty fish.
Bluefish will attack anything moving in their path. Blues are fearless carnivorous with voracious appetites that are built to hunt in the open water; and to bite, cut and chomp.
Some local fishermen call bluefish “choppers” or "marine piranhas" because of their assertive and aggressive feeding habits. Just like piranhas, they have sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and a varied diet.
A really hungry bluefish will bite almost anything, even its own kin. I have examined the stomach contents of several bluefish a few times and found many to be cannibals. In one big blue, I found the remains of numerous juvenile bluefish.
Remarkably bluefish will even bite people. Over the years I have seen quite a few people fishing in the shallows around New York Harbor with bare feet and leaving the water with bloody ankles after being bitten by a blue. Watch out, bluefish have sharp teeth that can slice a fat thumb to the bone! Bluefish should be handled with caution due to their ability to snap at unsuspecting fingers. Otherwise, you might bleed like you sliced yourself with a razor. Ouch!
No doubt it’s a scary time if you are a puny peewee baitfish, such as spearing, killifish, bay anchovies or bunker. Right now small fish are a little on the edge. So stressed, the little fish might literally burst or leap out of the water to escape being a meal for a big hungry bluefish.
Be on the lookout for bluefish blitzes. This is when a feeding frenzy takes place and will force baitfish to the surface, churning the water in what is called a “bluefish blitz.” Small fish will jump or hurdle themselves out of the water to escape the large hungry mouths of a school of bluefish that often come roaring ravenously with blood in their eyes through closely crowded schools, cutting and tearing the living fish as they go, and leaving in their wake mangled fragments of small fish. An army of gulls and terns will sometimes join in to feed on scraps, and other large fish, including striped bass, will hang below to pick off the leftovers from the carnage. Known as “blitzes” these surf spectacles are voracious feeding attacks by bluefish on large schools of baitfish. It can happen near a shoreline anytime.
It’s not just adult bluefish that are hungry either. Juvenile bluefish locally known as snappers are feeding frantically on small fish too. These snappers are frequently the offspring of adults that spawned in April and May in the open ocean along the inner edge of the Gulf Stream. A single female will deposit between 400,000 and 2 million eggs. Not all will survive, but those that do will develop into juvenile fish and travel inshore to nearby estuaries, including New York Harbor in late spring and early summer to begin feeding. Around June, snappers are about two inches in length, but as they feed and feed, the fish grow fast, up to 10 inches by the time they leave New York Harbor in late September or early October.
But don’t think all this feeding activity goes untouched by people who like to fish. Bluefish are one of the most popular sport fish along the North Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) states the, “bluefish are pursued predominantly by recreational anglers, with recreational harvest accounting for approximately 80% of total removals in recent years. Anglers target bluefish near inlets, shoals, and rips that often hold large schools of bait, which creates a bluefish feeding frenzy. The excitement…makes them the second most harvested species behind striped bass.” Bluefish also account for about one percent of the commercial fishery landings in the United States.
But all this fishing usually leads to population fluctuations, and bluefish have not been exempt. Author Glenn R. Piehler in his book Exit Here for Fish!, published in 2000, tells us that bluefish populations have experienced ups and downs over the decades. He writes, “they were very abundant in the mid-1600s, vanished by the mid-1700s, rebounded in the mid-1800s, all but disappeared during the first half of the twentieth century, bounced back again from the late fifties though the eighties, declined again in the early nineties, and resurged again in 1997 and 1998.” Recently, the ASMFC has declared bluefish as not being overfished and not experiencing overfishing. In 2015, anglers harvested a total of 11.7 million pounds of bluefish, a 10% increase from 2014. For commercial fishing, 2015 landings totaled 4.3 million pounds, about 60% of which were caught in New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
People fishing for bluefish along New York Harbor in 1857. Picture from the author's private collection.
Certainly the fish are absolutely dependent on the abundance of bait, especially menhaden or bunker, to provide energy and the fuel needed for their reproduction, growth, and migration activities. Their way of life is to eat and grow fast and move fast. Male and female bluefish mature within two years, and may live up to 14 years and grow to more than 30 pounds (14 kg). They cannot afford to lose a single daily meal.
As water quality slowly improves, New York Harbor has become a place for many species to find food, but at the risk of becoming a meal for a larger or faster creature. Bluefish are not exempt from this cycle of life. They will keep on eating until one day something eats them. The drama of survival taking place right now in New York Harbor. To the delight of many anglers and fish watchers, but to the distress or many prey.
STOP THE WILLIAMS FRACKED GAS PIPELINE THROUGH NY HARBOR!
MY TOP 5 FAVORITE BOOKS ABOUT NY HARBOR
1. Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City by Leslie Day
2.Heartbeats in the Muck by John Waldman
3. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay by Clyde L. MacKenzie Jr.
4. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate
5. The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell