Living Sanibel: Two baitfish, bay anchovy and Spanish sardine
Because of its small size, the bay anchovy (aka glass minnow) is seldom if ever used as a baitfish. Throwing a cast net on a large school of these tiny anchovies is an unwelcome disaster. Their heads get stuck in the netting, and a single cast may result in hours of removing each and every minnow hopelessly lodged in the monofilament mesh. Even when one is caught, it is so soft that it is virtually impossible to keep on the hook.
The bay anchovy plays a vital part in the food chain and is part of the diet of every game fish in the gulf. This filter feeder eats zooplankton and micro-crustaceans that are not edible by larger game fish. It forms the base of the food web that eventually ends with the gulf’s apex predators: porpoises and sharks. Birds, especially terns, pelicans, and gulls, dine heavily on the bay anchovy and can be observed feeding on schools of them just off the causeway. If you see pelicans surface diving rather than plunge diving, the chances are that they are feeding on this fish.
The bay anchovy is easy to identify because it is nearly transparent. Small schools of them can be found running up and down the gulf beaches from the spring through the late fall. With the change of seasons, mile-wide schools of the bay anchovy migrate just offshore, attracting massive feeding frenzies of bonita tuna and Spanish mackerel. The bay anchovy is very tolerant of low salinity and can be found miles up the Caloosahatchee. It is found throughout the tropical and subtropical oceans.
The Spanish sardine is found as far as 150 miles offshore in waters up to 1,000 feet deep, but is seldom seen in the back bays or estuaries. It is used extensively as a baitfish, packaged and frozen and is an excellent bait choice (cut into one-inch pieces) for grouper, redfish, and mangrove snapper.
A close relative, the Sardinops sagax caerulea was fished to complete extinction off the coast of California in the 1960s. This was the sardine that was the basis of the canning industry of Monterey, California, made famous by John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Another related species was fished to collapse off the coast of Peru. Much of that catch was converted to fishmeal and fish oil. The sardine is a valued food because it is very high in omega-3 fatty acids and easily canned.
Florida does not commercially harvest the Spanish sardine. Most of the frozen sardines anglers use are imported from Venezuela or the Far East. Large schools of sardines can be found off Captiva starting at 20-foot depths and extending to the continental shelf. The sardine is preyed upon by gannets, boobies, gulls, pelicans, and terns from above and jacks, sharks, tuna, and porpoises from below.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.