Perhaps this was just a stroke of luck or a sign of something good or bad, but I recently found a juvenile Skilletfish while night seining near Port Monmouth, a small coastal community along Sandy Hook Bay and downstream from New York City. I was thrilled to find perhaps a new fish species for Lower New York Bay. But where did it come from and what did its detection mean for the health of the bay?
When first caught I had no idea what I had holding in my hand. The little fish was less than inch long with a weird fry-pan shape. Its head was wider than its body and smoothly rounded. The body color was dark brownish and molted. It had tiny eyes and fleshy lips. The strangest feature of this fish, however, was still to be seen.
I figured the best way to try to identity and key this curious fish was to put it inside a little fish tank I have for juvenile fish. Right now the tank was nearly empty except for a immature blenny that I was trying to classify. So I thought it might be just right as a temporary home.
What a bombshell. As soon as I put the fish inside the tank it quickly attached itself to the side of the aquarium. What an amazing sight! This bizarre fish was stuck to the side of my aquarium by a large suction disk on the underside of its body, like some sort of exotic tropical creature. Who knew such a fish could be found in Lower New York Bay?
I certainly didn't. I had to call an old friend to properly classify this fish. I couldn't wait any longer to find out its name. Jim, the Fish Tagging Director for the American Littoral Society, suggested to me that it might be a Skilletfish. I never heard of it before.
After looking through a few field guides and pictures on the internet, I determined that it was in fact a young-of-the-year Skilletfish. Most likely hatched from an egg in either April or May.
Not much is really known about the Skilletfish in New Jersey or New York. It's a rare fish to find. According to the Hudson River Almanac website, I read reports that the fish was found for the first time in the Hudson River near Manhattan in 2011. It was found living near a newly formed oyster reef.
The Peterson Field Guide to Atlantic Coast Fishes tells us that the Skilletfish is the only "clingfish" on the north coast of the United States, north of southern Florida. It prefers to live near pilings, oyster reefs, and in grassy or rocky swallows. It can grow up to three inches.
Kenneth Able and Michael Fahay in their book entitled, Ecology of Estuarine Fishes: Temperate Waters of the Western North Atlantic, assert that New Jersey is the northern limit for this species, and that "juveniles are rarely, if ever, encountered in the extensively sampled Mullica River - Great Bay Estuary. They are much more common in estuaries from Chesapeake Bay and farther South."
No surprises then that the best source of information about the Skilletfish actually came from the Fishes of Chesapeake Bay book. The fish is common here. As written by Edward Musdy and others, the Skilletfish almost always cling to rocks or shells with its suction disk. The fish feeds on worms and small crustaceans such as amphipods and isopods. As for the life cycle of the little fish, adults "spawn between April to August. The female lays a few hundred amber-colored eggs into an empty oyster shell, and the male guards the eggs until they hatch." Skilletfish will remain in shallow waters near the shore during warmer months, but will migrate to deeper waters in winter.
How thrilling! A Skilletfish has been discovered living in Lower New York Bay. What does this mean? Maybe nothing. Then again since this fish is fond of oyster reefs, perhaps this means that oyster populations are starting to return to the bay, which would be a very good sign for the natural restoration of New York Harbor. We will just have to wait and see.
For more information, pictures, videos, and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/