An early Sunday morning at Sandy Hook, NJ, a long narrow peninsula that separates the Atlantic Ocean from Lower New York Bay and is part of the National Park Service. I arrived here to seine, to pull a long net through the water to find out who might be swimming downstream from New York City in early October.
Ever since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated to find out what might be swimming in the water. Seining in particular has given me a good way to take a brief look at what swims along the edge of a bay. To see who might be home and to find out just how much diversity exists along the shallows of an estuary.
Along the tidal waters of Sandy Hook Bay, there was no doubt this was an autumn day. While Sunday had dawned sunny and quiet, weather-wise the day was poles apart from Saturday. Mild, muggy air temperatures in the upper 70s yesterday, were replaced from that passage of cold front that quickly dropped temperatures downward, bottoming out in the chilly lower 50s by morning. Shorts, flip-flops, and a tee-shirt were replaced hastily with pants, shoes, and a fleece jacket.
Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, no sooner had the sun risen over the ocean than a cold northeast wind drew heavy gray clouds across the sky. The first nor'easter of the season was taking shape south of the region this Sunday morning. The forecast called for a storm to ride northeastward. Gusty winds and a shield of showers would arrive by mid-afternoon and continue through the evening hours.
I didn't have much time then in the water. Already there was some chop being churned out by blustery winds. Despite the foul weather, though, water temperatures were still warm. Readings were in the upper 60s to low 70s, kind of balmy and pleasant.
After a few hauls of a seine net with a friend, everything seemed normal. The catch included Atlantic silversides, bay anchovies, a few tautogs, snapper bluefish, lady crabs, sand crabs, comb jellies, gooseberry jellies, and even a small number of puffer fish.
Out by a bulkhead, though, with an incoming tide was when the catch became out of the ordinary. The last haul of the day included a tropical fish from Florida!
It was a small, juvenile Permit. A beautiful silvery metallic colored fish that is more comfortable swimming off the coast of Florida than off the coast of New Jersey.
It might be hard to believe, but New Jersey's tidal waters are home to tropical fish. They are commonly found during the late summer and early fall when local waters are warm enough to allow for their survival. Many are juveniles that were born earlier in the year on coral reefs near the coast of Florida or in the Caribbean Sea, and swept north in the warm Gulf Stream current. At times, the Gulf Stream forms a warm-water eddy or ring that swings close to New Jersey and New York, including Lower New York Bay. Tropical fish swimming within this warm-water whirling motion will then be swept into a new home.
Although any species of tropical fish has the potential of being found here, the majority are members of a colorful, tropical-looking family of fishes called jacks. The most common include Lookdowns, Crevalles, Permits, Pompanos, and Moonfish.
Perhaps the fish I caught was a Florida Pompano. It's difficult to tell Permits and Florida Pompanos apart, especially in their immature stage. Both fish are silver in color, have forked tails, and are members of the carangid family of marine fish. Most species are fast-swimming predatory fish that hunt in the open waters or above reefs for other fish and crustaceans. Most have short, deep, and compressed bodies.
With similar body shapes and the same basic coloration, it's easy to get the two confused. Permits and Florida Pompanos are so similar in appearance that it's common for people who fish to catch one when in fact they have hooked the other.
For me, I am comfortable calling the fish a Permit. The characteristic item that helped me to identity the fish were two small distinct prickly fins in front of the anal fin. Only the Permit has these two tiny fins.
To hold a Permit in my hand was a strange experience. A bit of tropical flavor on a chilly autumn morning.
Unfortunately, after catching this strange fish, I had no idea what to do with it. It's not as easy as just putting the poor fish back into the water.
Apparently these wayward young exotic fishes are unable to find their way home and will not survive the stress of rapidly changing water temperatures in northern latitudes. Usually by the end of October these tropical fish die off when water temperatures in Lower New York Bay fall below 60 degrees F.
So I decided to put the little Permit inside my home aquarium, thinking perhaps I am doing it a favor. Not an easy choice. I am used to putting fish back in the water as quickly as possible.
Still, my modest aquarium is a poor home for this beautiful fish. Permits mature in about three years and can grow over two-feet long. Next week I will try to make a visit to nearby Coney Island Aquarium to see if they want a little Permit. The aquarium has a full-size fish tank with other Permits swimming inside, most caught in or near Lower New York Bay during fall. Perhaps my little fish will find a home and make a few friends with other adolescent wayward tropical drifters.
For more information, pictures 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/