July 03, 2013

NATURALLY SoFo: One-Way Ticket

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Every summer, hundreds of different fish species inhabit our marine waters throughout Long Island. Most of these fish are either migratory or live in these waters year-round.

They are here because they have a purpose and have come on their own willpower to feed on the abundance of food that thrives in our nutrient-rich waters. These fish will linger, feeding and accumulating the energy needed to migrate back where they came from or to venture off into deeper waters to burrow down for the winter. Whichever group of fish they are, they have the privileged ability to swim to a habitat that will assure their survival during the winter with the hope of returning the following year.

But there is a group of fish that also inhabit these waters of Long Island that are seldom seen. They are known as the exotic (tropical) Gulf Stream fishes and they are here in our waters throughout the summer but, unlike other fish groups, they will not be going home.

The Gulf Stream is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic Ocean current originating in the Gulf of Mexico, exiting through the Strait of Florida and flowing in a northerly direction along the southeast coast of the United States, passing Long Island 150 to 200 miles offshore.

Every year in the Gulf of Mexico many types of tropical fish spawn, releasing free-floating eggs and developing larvae into the water column. As this strong ocean current whips past spawning grounds, it pulls in anything in its path, especially young developing fish that eventually find themselves drifting north and away from their home range.

As these fish drift closer and closer to Long Island, they are diverted away from the Gulf Stream by large eddies (swirls) that form carrying them into inshore waters like Shinnecock and Gardiners Bay. It is here that these tropical visitors will stay and develop throughout the summer, not yet realizing that they are not in their normal habitat.

As the summer season progresses, there is no better opportunity to grab your snorkel gear and flippers and head down to the bay and try to view such wonderful creatures as Lookdown, Trigger, Banded Rudder, Jack Crevalle, Spotfin Butterfly, Glasseye Snapper or even a Bigeye. I have seen all these fish many times here on the East End in eelgrass beds and around pilings. Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays is a great snorkeling spot to find these fish.

When summer deepens and water temperatures begin to cool, these fish are triggered through their sensory systems to head back to their tropical environment, back offshore in search of the Gulf Stream current that brought them here. As they swim offshore sensing the warm current, they are sucked back in the Gulf Stream which continues to head in a northerly direction. It brings them to the frigid waters off Nova Scotia and Europe where they will perish due to the cold or be eaten by prey.

Before the fish make their one-way journey, hop in the water this summer to take in a tropical view and experience the beauty of the Caribbean in our own backyard.

This August the South Fork Natural History Museum offers a week-long, hands-on Marine Sciences Summer Program designed to introduce children aged six to 11 to the region's myriad marine wonders. Adventures include snorkeling and seining, plus a day spent aboard a scientific marine research vessel. Call SoFo at 631-537-9735 for details.

Frank Quevedo is the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum. Located in Bridgehampton, SoFo is the only state-of-the-art natural history museum on the South Fork. Check it out at sofo.org.

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