The season for tropical fish watching is about to begin in Long Island Sound and, better yet, in nearby Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
We are talking about real tropical reef fish, not just species like croakers and drum that prefer warmer waters off the Southeastern U.S. but are not truly tropical. We’re talking the kind of fish that one snorkles or SCUBA dives to see when on vacation in the Bahamas or Caribbean: grunts, angelfish, jacks, snappers, moonfish, burrfish, sergeant majors and a host of other snappy-colored reef dwellers.
They begin to arrive here in mid-July, according to a study by the University of Rhode Island and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Their numbers peak in mid September, a month after water temperatures reach their maximum, then start decreasing as waters cool.
If you want to catch a glimpse of these tropical beauties, your best bet might be to sashay down to a coastal marina or, if you don't have access to one, to seaside state parks, says David Molnar, fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Since coral reefs do not grow here, the fish seek other forms of submerged structure, such as docks, pilings and breakwaters. They even congregate under moored boats.
The first time I saw tropicals in our waters was more than three decades ago during a period when I was taking on assignments that involved diving in places such as the Red Sea, Hawaii and out of the HydroLab undersea laboratory in the Bahamas. At the time, I was very much tuned in to reef fish and had amassed a pile of reference books on the subject. I never thought that I would be referring to them to read about fish I saw at the marina in Westbrook, where I moored a small Brockway skiff. One morning as I was about to get aboard, I saw movement in the water around the shaft of my outboard motor. It was a school of sergeant majors, so-called because of their stripes, black on yellow.
All of them were juveniles, about the size of a half dollar. That is par for the course for the tropicals that end up here, carried by the Gulf Stream, where the current can run as fast as 4 miles an hour. Small young fish are not strong enough to escape when the current catches them, and so ride it north. It goes on all year but only in the summer, when waters warm, do they live once reaching northern climes. The rest of the year, cold kills them.
The reason that the juvenile reef fish reach inshore waters is the Gulf Stream spawns eddies that spin off the main current and sweep towards shore. The South Shore of Long Island catches many of these eddies and is a prime place for juvenile reef fish. Collectors — hobbyists, commercial dealers and even those from public aquariums — regular catch fish along Long Island’s Atlantic face. It is one kind of collecting that poses no harm to fish populations because the fish are destined to die as fall temperatures chill the water.
Eddies heading toward the Sound drop most of their fish off Rhode Island, especially in Narragansett Bay. Fort Wetherill State Park on Jamestown, Conanicut Island, is famed among knowledgeable divers as a place to observe tropical fish in summer.
You do not have to enter the water to see juvenile tropical. Simply walk to the water’s edge along likely places and look down. The fish often school close to the surface.
Not all fish from warmer waters that enter the Sound in summer are juveniles. Adults of warm water species, including those of sportfish, show up with some regularity. Porgy fishermen sometimes hook up with gray triggerfish, says Dave Molnar. Spanish mackerel are caught virtually every year, especially in the eastern Sound.