By Joe Reynolds
You never know what you might find while throwing a casting net into the water. This time around it was a fish I had never seen before or ever knew it survived in New York Harbor.
Sheepshead minnows (Cyprinodon variegatus Lacepede 1803) are part of the Killifish family, Cyprinodontidae. A large family of over one thousand different small, stout, hardy fish that are consumed worldwide as food by large fish and wading birds; and handled as bait by many anglers.
I found this unexpected fish while wading in the tidal waters of the Navesink River last weekend, near where the river meets the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey. I was throwing an 8-foot casting net in a shallow, muddy tidal pool to see what I might find. Among the many Striped killifish within the net were several juvenile Sheepshead minnows.
Of course at the time I didn’t know what I had. A strange short fish with a thick-body, a high arched back, a flat-topped head, and a thick square tail. After taking numerous pictures of the fish and doing some on-line research at home, I uncovered the strange fish to be a Sheepshead minnow. A new fish for me. I have never heard of a Sheepshead minnow before.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the native range for Sheepshead minnows is from the coastal waters of Massachusetts to the Yucatan Peninsula of northeastern Mexico; and also the West Indies, including the Bahamas, Grand Cayman Island and Jamaica.
It’s a fish that seems to prefer warm waters, but is hardy enough to withstand some degree of cold water. The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay tells us that Sheepshead minnows “during the winter months…burrow in the mud, lying dormant during the cold weather. Like killifish, they can withstand the large changes in oxygen levels, temperature, and salinity conditions that are commonplace in coastal salt marshes.”
A favorite field guide of mine, Fishes of Chesapeake Bay, tells us even more. The fish is abundant in Chesapeake Bay, “where it frequents shallow flats, marshes, and tidal ponds during the summer months and retreats to channels or burrows into the silt in marsh ponds in the winter….It is a hardy species that has been found from freshwater to water with salinities exceeding 90%.” The authors go on to describe a fish that likes travel in “large schools, swimming near the shoreline and entering marshes during high tide.”
Sheepshead minnow will eat a variety of foodstuff. Their favorite foods are plant material, algae, and detritus, but will also forage for mosquitoes, and small crustaceans and smaller fish.
In 1953, Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder authored the Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, a series of books, which was part of the US Fish & Wildlife’s Fishery Bulletin. The report had a page devoted to Sheepshead Minnow. After writing a general description about the fish and its habits on page 165, the authors concluded:
“This fish, like many others, finds its northern limit at Cape Cod and would not deserve mention here at all were it not recorded from the Cape by Storer. West and south of Cape Cod, however, as at Woods Hole, it is common enough in suitable situations. We have seined many of them with Fundulus at the head of Buzzards Bay.”
At this time, I cannot find any mention of the fish existing in New York Harbor or nearby local waters. But the Sheepshead minnow seems to be here now, and perhaps it has been for many years. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this fish within our busy and bustling urban/suburban waters.
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