Fish and Fishy Things

Red Snapper (various species, Spanish: Huachinango)

We will start this section with fish you are most likely to encounter in a local restaurant. Like many other common fish names, the term “red snapper” is used for many different species of fish., in fact, identifies over 100 species worldwide called red snapper. In Mexico they are called “huachinango” and include at least seven different species; all are in the Lutjanidae (snapper) family. They are perchlike in appearance and, of course, red. These fish are found over hard bottoms in inshore reef areas and in coastal rocky areas. They are carnivorous, feeding on invertebrates and smaller fish, and are often found in schools. Huachinango are the primary target for local fishermen who catch them with handlines baited with sardines. The lights you may see at night around Los Moros are panga fishermen out for huachinango, pargo and whatever else they can find. Much of what they catch is served hours later at the enramadas or eaten at home where it is often grilled over wood on outdoor stoves. If you walk behind the enramada restaurants, you can see the cooks preparing fish on these stove,s which are usually a rough table of branches plastered with adobe. The results, particularly if you ask that they not be over-cooked or over-salted, are superb.

Snook (Several Species; Spanish: Roballo)

Worldwide there are over 50 different species of fish that are commonly called “snook”; many are found in Latin America and the Caribbean, but there are snook in Denmark, Germany, Australia and the UK as well. Three species are identified with Mexico: White Snook (Centropomus viridis), Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis), and the Humpback Snook (Centropomus unionenis). They all have long bodies and snouts oriented towards bottom feeding. The belly is white and there is a distinctive dark lateral line that extends to the end of the tail. These fish roam fresh, brackish and shallow salt water and are frequently found at the mouths of rivers and estuaries, particularly during spawing season. They eat other fish and crustaceans. They are highly prized as a game fish and an excellent food fish. The world record for hook and line is a 53-lb, 10 oz fish caught in Costa Rica. They also often appear on menus at the enramadas and other local restaurants.

Pargo (many species; Spanish: Pargo)

The common name of this fish, again, encompasses many species of fish found in oceans all around the world and broadly overlaps with fish commonly called “snappers”. There are hundreds of species labelled pargo, with over 40 species in Mexico. So the pargo veracruzana you order off a menu could be one of a variety of delicious perchlike reef fish. They are carnivorous, feeding on fish and invertebrates on the bottom. Some species can reach a large size; a meter or more in length and over 20 pounds, although most caught and served locally are much smaller.

Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis; Spanish: Barrilete)

Skipjack or skipjack tuna are easily identified by having a blue or blue-purple back and a silvery belly with 4-6 stripes on it. They live in tropical oceans around the world and reach up to 40 inches in length. They live to 8-12 years and their diet consists of fish, squid, krill, pelagic red crabs, etc.

Many skipjack school year round in nearby waters, but they are not common in the surf, nor is their dark meat considered prize food. You may see some unloaded by the panga fishermen at Barra de Potosi with their catch. The fish you see caught from the beach with hand lines and small throw nets are more likely to be crevelle jacks, sierras and sardines.

Roosterfish (Nematistius pectoralis; Spanish: Pez Gallo)

While not good to eat, the pez gallo is one of the most prized sport fish on the Pacific Coast. This powerful fish, which regularly weighs in at 40 pounds or more, aggressively feeds near the shoreline and any angler who hooks into one is in for a heavyweight showdown. They sport a distinctive raised comb which cuts through the water as they bear down to attack. The largest specimens top 110 pounds.

Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares; Spanish: Atun aleta amarilla)

Yellowfin tuna have blue backs and silvery bellies and namesake yellow fins. They grow to over 6 feet in length and often travel with skipjack, eating the same diet. In the eastern Pacific, they often school with porpoises and commercial fishermen often track porpoises in search of yellowfin tuna. Most fish are cold-blooded; their internal temperature is close to that of the surrounding water because they lose body heat through the gills. But tuna can be up to 18 degrees F. warmer than the sea. The have evolved a system to retain body heat by a counter-current heat exchange process which allows their muscles to operate more efficiently so they can swim faster.

Round Stingray (Urolophus halleri. Spanish: Raya )

You might not want to spot this one. These rays are up to 22 in (56 cm) long and they congregate seasonally in large schools just off Playa Blanca to mate and give birth. If stepped on, they can give a sharp sting from the large spine located halfway down the tail. The folk remedy for a sting is to immediately apply urine. They are identified by their flat round shape and brownish or gray-brown color with fine yellow spots.

Mahi Mahi or Dorado or Dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus; Spanish: Dorado)

This fish has a distinctive blunt head and a back fin (dorsal) that runs the length of its body. It lives in tropical waters around the world; mahi mahi is a Hawaiian word and the species is prized for eating. It can reach over 80 pounds and local sport fishermen regularly catch bulls in the 40 pound range. When schools of baitfish come close to shore, there are often mahi mahi among the jack crevalles and other predators that follow them. The enramadas at Barra de Potosi often feature it on the menu.

Jack Crevalle (Caranx hippos; Spanish: Jurel)

If you see pelicans diving into the surf and a flurry of local fishermen twirling hand lines in pursuit of something, you can bet that jurels are in attendance. The Latin name “hippos” is apt, for catching these fish feels like pulling in hippopotamuses. They are frighteningly powerful for their size, which commonly reaches 15-20 pounds with record specimens over three feet long and in the 60 pound range. They have deep bodies relative to their length and distinctive black spots; one on the gill cover and the other at the base of the pectoral fin. Their overall color is greenish-blue or bluish black above, silvery sides and yellowish belly.

Needlefish (Family Belonidae; Spanish: Agujon)

These slender needle-shaped fish stay near the surface and chase small fish which they catch with a sideways sweep of their head. You regularly see them leaping after baitfish just past the breaking waves. The larges ones reach over 20 pounds but most of the local ones run 2-5 pounds and not more than two feet in length. They are close relatives of flying fish.

Porcupine Fish (Diodon hystrix; Spanish: Pez puercoespinas) and Puffers (Spanish: Bolete)

Both porcupine fish and puffers inflate in defense to make it hard for predators to attack and eat them. Both have spines all over their bodies; those of porcupine fish are longer than puffers’. They inhabit reefs and rocks in tropical waters and occasionally dead ones wash ashore along Playa Blanca. The spotted porcupine is the most common.

Many species of porcupine fish and puffer fish contain a deadly toxic poison. The poison, named tetrodotoxin, acts by disrupting the flow of nerve impulses from the brain. Symptoms appear within half an hour starting with dizziness; paralysis soon follows. There is no antidote and death occurs in about 60% of all cases. In Japan where it is called “fugu”, puffer is served in specially licensed restaurants by skilled chefs, presumably with good liability insurance, who separate the portions of the fish that contain tetrododtoxin from the parts that do
not. Buen provecho.

Crabs (infraorder Brachyura; Spanish: Cangrejo o Jaiba)

Of the 6793 known species of crabs, a number inhabit Playa Blanca. All crabs have a pair of claws and four other pairs of legs for a total of 10 appendages. Their size ranges from about 1 cm to almost 2 meters. As a crab grows, it sheds its rigid shell, usually through a slit in the back. A new shell then soon hardens with calcium carbonate which the crab extracts from sea water or gets by eating its old shell. To escape enemies, crabs can shed legs or claws by contracting special muscles at predetermined breakage points. New limbs are then regenerated in successive molts of the shell. Most crabs are scavengers although some are predators and a few eat plankton. Hermit crabs, which live in the abandoned shells of snails and other animals, are not true crabs but are more closely related to shrimp.

Pacific Sand Crab or Mole Crab (Emerita analoga; Spanish: Chiquiliques)

This small, ovoid shaped crab is commonly found burrowing into the sandy beach of Playa Blanca. It is gray or sand colored and does not have claws or spines. Chiquiliques spend most of its time buried in the sand. It has five pairs of appendages that allow it to swim, crawl, and burrow, which are all done backwards. Its eyestalks reach above the sand. The first pair of antennae reach above the sand for respiration, and the second pair, resembling feathers, are extended when feeding. The antennae collect small organisms, which are pulled into the body, and the food is scraped off. They periodically molt, so the empty exoskeletons may be found on the shore. If a female is carrying eggs, they will be found as a bright-orange mass tucked on the underside.

Sand crabs are a major food source for shore birds and for some kinds of fish; they also are used as bait by fishermen.