Salute to the Sergeant Major
by Alyssa Lexvold
Forage fish are commonly known as bait fish – so how did the ornamental sergeant major end up on that list?
Forage Fish are the fish on which larger fish prey upon. Mullet, Sardine, Pinfish, Herring, and Pilchard are a few of the names of South Florida prey species that quickly come to mind. For good reason, sergeant majors are on that list.
During a recent Tournament in the Lake Worth Lagoon using iAngler Tournament system (hosted by Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club and the Snook and Gamefish Foundation), nearly forty species of fish were caught using Hook and Line, all within the confines of the lagoon (Palm Beach County). I wanted to see some of this hot action for myself – so I threw my tackle box and one of my rods into the back of my truck and hit the road. I went straight to the seawall at the Boynton Beach Inlet and to my surprise I immediately found four sergeant majors hanging out by the shade of the seawall checking out my lure.
I’ve always considered sergeant majors a tropical fish that I typically see when I’m snorkeling in clear, blue reef waters. I wanted to know why they were hanging out in the murky waters of the Lake Worth Lagoon so I called Jennifer Baez. Jennifer is an Environmental Analyst for the Department of Environmental Resources Management where she works on advancement and restoration projects within the Lake Worth Lagoon. She works on artificial reefs, living shorelines, and mangrove restoration and knows quite a lot about the many creatures of the lagoon, including sergeant majors.
She confirmed what I saw - sergeant majors are not just offshore reef fish. Jennifer explained to me that they do live in offshore reefs but that they can also live their entire life cycle in the Lake Worth Lagoon. The lagoon has a great flushing system for oceanic water to flush in and out through the Palm Beach Inlet, a much bigger (manmade) waterway than the southern lagoon inlet in Boynton. The lagoon also provides sergeant majors excellent spaces where they can forage and survive. A lot of Jennifer's restoration projects have provided proper habitats for them. They love artificial reefs and any rocky areas near seawalls or limestone boulders.
Jennifer told me that they are an aggressive fish species when it comes to protecting their territory where they could possibly have spawned their eggs; and the lagoon provides the perfect habitats for them to dart around showing off the behavior traits of the damselfish family. Their boulder habitat not only provides them a home and safe haven for their eggs, but it’s also where they forage on algae growing on the boulder and also feast on larvae such as shrimp and small fish.
Resident gamefish in the lagoon (think snook and jacks and others) likely have made a meal of the colorful damselfish, and any visiting carnivorous fish such as Cobia and Mackerel probably wouldn’t pass up on the easy meal of sergeant majors that stray too far from the safety of their home structure. Sergeant majors can withstand pretty high temperatures and are comfortable in shallow coastal areas, providing them a bit safer territory when bigger fish might view them as dinner. They are a stable fish species and there aren’t any threats to their existence, so long as we don’t wipe out their necessary habitats. They are distributed worldwide and do not have any natural threats on their existence.
Their role in the Lake Worth Lagoon provides us with the knowledge that as long as they are thriving in the Lagoon, we know that our local habitats, water clarity and quality are at least sufficient to keep them around.
The next time you’re out on the water in the Lake Worth Lagoon, keep an eye out for those Sergeant Majors, for now you know that they are more than just a pretty local face – they feed our gamefish too. And if you are throwing tiny hooks looking for bait along the shoreline, you might just hook one yourself. If you do, as with all of your fishing trips, please remember to log your catches at www.angleraction.org.
Editor's Note: All underwater images and video courtesy of Ava Fitzgerald. Tournament images from www.ianglertournament.com. SGF encourages our members and readers to learn more about forage fish at http://floridaforagefish.igfa.org/.