When you think of butterflyfishes, groupers and tangs, the beautiful reefs of Australia, Hawaii and the Caribbean come to mind. One of the last places a person would think of is Long Island, New York. Located just east of New York City and jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, it is the largest island of the continental United States. From mid-June until early October, when the water temperature rises above 67 degrees Fahrenheit, the tropical fish from Florida and the Caribbean Sea begin to arrive and grow.
How these fish and other tropical marine organisms arrive at Long Island is a fascinating story. Long Island has two major coastlines: one on the north shore and one on the south shore. It is the south shore facing into the Atlantic Ocean that collects the tropical fish we are looking to capture. The south shore is protected by a string of barrier islands that run eastward from New York City to the Hamptons. These barrier islands are located 1 to 3 miles offshore. They enclose large, warm, shallow bays that are connected to the ocean by four inlets. It is through these inlets that the fish arrive to populate the bays. The fish are carried up as eggs or planktonic larvae in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream current. Periodically, large circular pools of warm water called gyres separate from the Gulf Stream and brush the south shore. During these events, thousands of warmwater fish, shrimp and crabs flood the bays. Even ocean-going (pelagic) fish, such as juvenile mahi-mahi, can be collected in only a few feet of water.
One of the best places to collect tropical fish is in the shallow waters near the inside entrances of the inlets, preferably in the seagrass beds. The seagrass provides cover and hunting areas for the newly settled fish. Just like most things in life, timing and location are everything. If possible, start at low tide and work with the incoming tide. The lower the tide, the further out into the grassbeds you can go. As the tide sweeps in, it brings millions of the small organisms that fish love to feed on. The fish will follow these organisms (copepods, larval crabs, etc.) into just inches of water. Other great collecting spots can be found around jetties and docks, with their barnacle- and seaweed-covered surfaces.
Knowing where the fish should be is just half the battle. Catching them and safely bringing them home is the real success. In order to do this, some basic equipment is needed. Nets are the most important and versatile pieces of collecting gear. A seine net is a long narrow net usually dragged through the water by two people. A good size is 10 to 20 feet long and 4 to 6 feet tall. The net should have Styrofoam or plastic floats attached, with the top line running through each float. The bottom line should have lead sinkers spaced out every 18 inches or so. The best nets are made of knotless soft nylon. Stay away from plastic mesh nets — they are cheap for a reason. They tend to float, and the net usually doesn’t open properly. Hand nets can be purchased from dive shops, or you can use short-handled aquarium nets. Net size is a matter of choice — small nets maneuver faster but have smaller openings to catch fish. When snorkeling, I like to use two nets: a large net to catch the fish and a smaller one to chase them to the larger net.
The long-handled dipnet is another excellent collecting net. It can be dragged up the face of bulkheads to collect all sorts of shrimp, blennies, gobies and killies. Pick a square or rectangular net about 10 by 12 inches and about 8 to 10 inches deep. A mesh size of about a quarter of an inch allows the net to move easily through the water, while holding all but the smallest fish and crustaceans. There are other collecting tools, such as slurp guns (which suck fish up from the water), but they can be expensive and have limited use.
Bring along plenty of buckets with lids if possible. The best buckets have wide mouths and hold 4 to 5 gallons of water. The wider the bucket mouth, the more surface area it has for gas exchange. A wide-mouthed bucket also makes it easier to net out the day’s catch. The reason for bringing all these buckets is to limit overcrowding and to allow you to separate the predators, such as groupers and snappers, from the more peaceful blennies, goatfish and fish known as “permits.” If you drill a small hole through the bucket an inch or so below the lip, you can run an air line from a battery-powered aerator into the bucket while the lid is tightly closed for transport. Be sure to poke one or two tiny holes to allow the air from the aerator to pump into the bucket. Otherwise, the sealed bucket can pressurize, and the aerator will stop pumping air. You can also use round floating bait buckets with snap-down lids to house your catch. They can be anchored just off the beach with a few 2-ounce fishing sinkers. The fish in the bait bucket will have constant water changes, and when it’s time to leave, the entire bait bucket can be placed into another water-filled pail.
Catching the Fish
Now comes the best part: catching the fish. Pick a nice day with a gentle breeze and head for the nearest grassbed. Wade out waist-deep and begin to pull the seine net parallel to the beach. How long you pull the net depends on how much grass there is and how much floating seaweed is being caught. Turn toward the shore and bring the net up on the beach, making certain the bottom of the net stays on the sand and that there is about 2 to 3 inches of water. Some fish may not be in water when the waves go out, but they will stay wet and be OK — but these are the animals you should collect or return to the water first.
Then start looking for the tropicals. The easiest to spot are the butterflyfishes. Bright white and yellow, the spotfin butterfly (Chaetodon ocellatus) is the species most commonly caught. You will also find banded butterflies (C. striatus) and four-eyed butterflies (C. capistratus). The next most commonly collected fish are the groupers. There are nine species that show up in Long Island somewhat regularly and several more that turn up every few years. The most common is the beautiful snowy grouper (Hyporthodus niveatus). Look for a chunky-bodied fish with white spots. Snowy groupers smaller than 2 inches have bright yellow fins that make them easy to spot. Scamp groupers (Mycteroperca phenax) have red and white patches and are the next easiest species to spot in the net. Most of the other groupers are brown or black with various types of mottling. All are chunky with large mouths.
The jacks (Carangidae family) turn up every year, and the most commonly seen species are the sleek crevalle jack (Caranx hippos) and the permit (Trachinotus falcatus). Young crevalles are silver or gold in color with vertical black bars. Permits are silver with red anal fins when small. When removing them from the net, be sure your hands are wet or you will damage their skin. They require a lot of oxygen, so aerate their bucket and change the water frequently to keep it cool. Both species get quite large very quickly, but they are worth keeping. They are easy to feed, eating frozen brine shrimp and Mysis shrimp when small, and frozen shrimp and chunks of fish as they get larger.
The ultimate prize of the jack family is the lookdown (Selene vomer). When young, the lookdown has greatly elongated dorsal rays that form magnificent purple streamers much longer than the fish itself. When collecting them, use a bucket to move them or handle them just once to get them into the bucket. These fish have very sensitive skin and will be damaged if handled more than once. After moving them once with your hands, use a fine mesh net or dip them out with a cup. Lookdowns are relatively slow-moving and can be picky feeders. They will learn to eat frozen foods, but at first you might have to feed them very small live shrimp and feeder fish. House them alone or with peaceful fish that will not attack their streamers.
The Fish of Long island
Spotfin (Chaetodon ocellatus)
Reef (C. sedentarius)
Four-eye (C. capistratus)
Banded (C. striatus)
Gray (Pomacanthus arcuatus)
French (P. paru)
Filefishes and Triggerfishes
Orange filefish (Aluterus
Planehead filefish (Stephanolepis hispidus)
Scrawled filefish (A. scriptus)
Queen trigger (Balistes vetula)
Gray trigger (B. capriscus)
Jacks and Their Relatives
Horse-eye (Caranx latus)
Crevalle (C. hippos )
Blue runner (C. crysos)
Yellow (Carangoides bartholomaei)
Permit (Trachinotus falcatus)
Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus)
Mackerel scad (Decapterus macarellus)
Round scad (D. punctatus)
Sergeant major (Abudefduf saxatilis)
Beaugregory (Stegastes leucostictus)
Bicolor damsel (S. partitus)
Cocoa (S. variabilis)
Schoolmaster (Lutjanus apodus)
Lane (L. synagris)
Mutton (L. analis)
Gray (L. griseus)
Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides)
Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus)
Spottail pinfish (Diplodus holbrookii)
Dwarf (Upeneus parvus)
Red (Mullus auratus)
Pigfish (Orthopristis chrysoptera)
White (Haemulon plumieri)
Red (Epinephelus morio)
Nassau (E. striatus)
Rock hind (E. adscensionis)
Snowy (Hyporthodus niveatus)
Warsaw (H. nigritus)
Black (Mycteroperca bonaci)
Scamp (M. phenax)
Tiger (M. tigris)
Gag (M. microlepis)
Short big-eye (Pristigenys alta)
Glasseye snapper (Heteropriacanthus cruentatus)
Seining can also help you collect burrfish (Chilomycterus schoepfii), bandtail puffers (Sphoeroides spengleri), various filefish species and the odd trunkfish (Lactophrys sp.).
If you get tired of seining, walking slowly through the grassbeds with a dipnet can be rewarding. In the bay behind Smith Point Beach, I once collected nine hand-sized orange filefish (Aluterus schoepfii) in 20 minutes using a 14-inch square dipnet. Small jacks and rudderfish like to hide in and around floating bits of seaweed. You can often catch all you can house with just one careful slide of the dipnet underneath the floating mass. Pipefish and seahorses are also found in the grass and will be found clinging to or tangled up in the stems at the bottom of the net. If you walk over to a dock or bulkhead and run the dipnet from the bottom of the structure to the top, you will be rewarded with tons of local shrimp, gobies, featherfin and Molly Miller blennies.
If you snorkel or dive around docks and jetties, you may be able to find one of the ultimate tropical fish: blue angelfish (Holacanthus bermudensis). They must be hand-netted, and patience and luck are needed to find and catch one. Numerous other species can be found this way; several types of damselfish are found only around docks and other structures and can be collected with hand nets. They are fast and know all the local hiding spots, so be prepared to really work for them.
As you can see, Long Island can be a northern paradise for Caribbean and Floridian fish. Collecting these fish can be a great and inexpensive way to start a warmwater marine aquarium. By catching your own fish, you can learn a great deal about their habits and requirements. Also, the capture of these fish has no impact on these species’ breeding populations. With the exception of a few species, all the tropical fish that are swept up to Long Island will die when the water temperature drops below 60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. These fish represent a sustainable and renewable resource if treated respectfully. Remember to only collect what you are prepared to house. If you catch a large number of one species, or fish that are aggressive or large, return them to the bay. Give others a chance to experience the joy of catching fish hundreds of miles from their native waters.
You never know what will turn up during a collecting trip. Each trip is different, and each year brings many surprises. I have spent 40 years collecting in these waters and have never had a year go by where I didn’t catch or see something completely new. FAMA
Steve Abrams is currently the manager of Stony Brook University’s Flax Pond Marine Laboratory and is on the board of directors of the Long Island Aquarium Society. Abrams has a 950-square-foot fish room where he hopes to become involved in endangered fish conservation.