Southwest Florida's School of Fish
"One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish," - famous words from bestselling children's author Dr. Seuss are actually a surprisingly accurate description of marine life here in our Southwest Florida waters; which are indeed home to both red fish, called redfish or red drum - because of the grunting sound they make; and blue fish, called white grunt - because of the audible grunting produced by the grinding of their teeth, with their bladder acting as an amplifier. These fish, along with more than 250 other species of fish come in a variety of colors, sizes and names from A to Z, which can all be found here in our Gulf of Mexico waters. Our thanks to the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for their assistance. How many can you name?
There's the Amberjack and Ballyhoo - a member of the halfbeak family with a long pointed beak that dwells at the water's surface. Then, we have the Crested goby, along with the Diamond killifish, Emerald parrotfish, Fringed flounder, and Gafftopsail catfish. Next up we have the Highhat - a small reef-dweller, also known as spotted drum and a member of the drums and croakers family. The Inshore lizardfish, Jackknife fish, Key worm eel, Lookdown - a member of the jack family with a steep, sloping head and thin body. Lookdowns eat small crustaceans, worms and small fish. And then there is the Mantis shrimp.
Additional Southwest Florida fish include the Nurse shark, Orange filefish, Pipefish - a relative of the seahorse. Like the seahorse, the male pipefish incubates the eggs in a special brood pouch on its belly. There are four species of pipefish found in the Reserve. The long, narrow body and its olive-brown shade allow it to blend in with its surroundings in seagrass beds. Continuing on, we have the Queen angelfish, Rainwater killifish, Striped burrfish, Tripletail, Upside down jelly - a most interesting sea jelly that swims in a right-side-up position, but rests on the bottom with his bell side down in order to feed; and to round out the alphabet, there is the Vermillion snapper, Whitespotted soapfish, X-ray fish - just kidding - there are no fish beginning with the letter x, but there is a Yellowtail snapper and the Zebra sole.
So, why the concern over plain old fish you ask? Actually, fish are of tremendous interest to scientists for many reasons. First, they are the most numerous vertebrates on earth, with species numbering more than 23,000. Ichthyologists (scientists that study fish) believe that they have been around for 500 million years or more - predating amphibians, birds, mammals and even reptiles. Also, when lumped together as a whole, fish have most definitely stood (well, swam actually) the test of time, adapting to the many changes that have occurred throughout the earth's volatile natural history. There are fish that fly (flying fish), fish that walk (walking catfish), fish that glow in the dark (comb jelly), fish living in schools with thousands of other fish (anchovies) and the Greta Garbo-esque fish that prefer to be alone (Gulf toadfish).
According to Rookery Bay research translator Renee Wilson, fish are a surprisingly reliable indicator of a healthy environment. "Simply put, when a particular fish that serves as a predator's food goes away, that predator must find something else to eat. That something else is important to another species for a different reason and so on, up the food chain. Each species is like a spoke in a wheel. If you remove one spoke, the wheel will still turn; however, if you remove more, the wheel will get wobbly and will eventually collapse." Additionally, species diversity is also crucial to a healthy ecosystem. Each species has its own niche - or job/function - to perform within their environment. When you remove one species from the big picture, something else suffers or wreaks havoc on the rest of the ecological community.
Increasing community awareness of the importance of our coastal environment is part of the mission of the Rookery Bay Reserve Environmental Learning Center where numerous programs are offered year-round for young children through our senior citizens. Stephanie Bailenson, director of Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Coastal & Aquatic Managed Areas stated in an interview in 2006 that, "fish are important in our world and in order for them to endure for generations to come, we must all learn more about them and the important role they play in our environment. We must also learn to fish responsibly and to keep our beaches and waterways clear of litter and other pollutants."
Each and every day we affect the quality of our coastal waters, in our routine everyday activities such as showering and flushing toilets. Keep in mind that every- thing that water touches will eventually find its way into our oceans. If we all do our part to protect our marine environment we can be assured that our red fish, our blue fish and all the other fish in our waters remain healthy and plentiful here in Southwest Florida.
Find out more:
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
300 Tower Road
Naples, Florida 34113
Hours: Mon-Sat 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Florida Aquarium (Tampa)
Key West Aquarium (Key West)
Sea World (Orlando)
Florida's Fabulous Fish by Gary Cochran and incredible images by Doug Perrine
Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, 2nd edition, by H. Dixson Hoese and Richard H. Moore
The ABCs of the Florida Landscape is written by freelance writer Maureen Sullivan-Hartung who has resided in Naples for 30 years and loves learning about all aspects of the local flora and fauna. Another passion of hers is local history and she authored a book in November 2010, titled, Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby, published by The History Press in South Carolina. Check her website for the book's availability and/or additional information about the author at: www.maureenwrites.com