Balance needed in preserving the vulnerable, yet tasty, hogfish

Hogfish have been listed by at least one conservation group as âvulnerable.â™ The problem is, they taste so good.
Hogfish have been listed by at least one conservation group as âvulnerable.â™ The problem is, they taste so good.

As the boat nears the dive site, I get my underwater camera ready. 

Camera works? Check. Strobe works?  Check. Water tight housing sealed? Double check (sort of channeled on the insurance commercial with National Football League’s most valuable player Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers). 

I look across the boat and there sits a chubby young kid (I’m a grumpy old geezer, so everybody under 50 is a young kid) with long blond hair assembling a spear gun the size of a cannon use by pirate ships during their heyday in the Caribbean.  

“Gotta stay outa this guy’s way,” I think as I jump off the back of the boat and quickly descend to about 50 feet deep. 

I fin along the ledge for about the length of a football field (still have Rogers on my mind from Green Bay blowing the NFC championship game and all) looking for the image I want. There it is. Not very big, but still a good specimen. I have come upon a young hogfish, which gets its common name from its long, pig-like snout and protruding mouth that it uses to root around the sea bottom for food. 

Its scientific name (Lachnolaimus maximus) is derived from the Greek "lachne, -es," meaning more covered with hair than others, and "laimos,” translated as throat.

I snap off a few shots and explore some more of the reef. On the way back to the boat, I don’t see my new friend the hogfish.  I ascend, give my camera to the mate and pull myself up the dive boat’s stern ladder. 

While shuffling to my spot near the bow, I see the chubby kid on the port (left) side of the boat holding up the hogfish. “Got my dinner,” he grins. I mumble something unintelligible.

Having just written a story about acclaimed underwater photographer Stephen Frink, I remember his admonition, “Don’t eat what you love.”

Thing is, I love to take pictures of hogfish, but gotta admit, they taste so darn good. 

Hogfish can be found off Florida, the Caribbean and in waters from North Carolina to the north coast of South America.

Hogfish belong to the second largest family of marine fishes, the wrasses. Except, most wrasses are cigar shaped, and the hogfish is compressed or flatter on its sides.  The first three dorsal (on the back) fin spines are elongated and trail behind the main fin. The tips of the dorsal and anal fins (anal fins are those at the back of the fish) are pointed.  

The hogfish’s color depends on age, sex and habitat. Young hogfish are usually grey, while larger fish are salmon pink, with a dark maroon bar on top of the snout. Males can be grey-brown overall and dusky to dark from the snout through the forehead up to the dorsal fin.  Hogfish have a round, black blotch below the dorsal fin, yellowish pectoral fins and bright red eyes. 

Juveniles often are found in sea grass beds in the Florida Bay. Adults can be found over hard sand and rock, at depths ranging from 10 to 100 feet, where sea whips or sea fans are abundant. Larger hogfish live on the main reef area and smaller fish usually stay in patch reefs.

Hogfish have strong jaws with protruding canine teeth and a second set of jaws used to crush prey. They feed by day on mollusks (including clams, snails and slugs, and tusk shells) but also will eat hermit crabs, shrimp and sea urchins.  I have seen them shoving their snouts into sand searching for clams and other mollusks. 

Adult hogfish can reach a length of 3 feet and a maximum weight of 22 pounds. The Florida state record is a 19-pound., 8-ounce fish caught in Daytona Beach. 

The sex life of hogfish puts “Sex in the City,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” and reality TV shows stars to shame. 

Cue the harem belly dance music. 

Male hogfish have harems. A male exclusively spawns, from February through March, with the females in his harem.  Hogfish like afternooners. Spawning takes place during afternoons and early evenings when, after the male courts a female, eggs and sperm are released into the water where fertilization takes place.

The fertilized eggs develop into larvae about 24 hours after fertilization. The larvae stage lasts several weeks until the larvae grow into juveniles and settle onto a suitable home, such as sea grass. 

Seems the males better treat their harem right. Females, upon reaching 3 years of age, or about 14 inches in length, and through social dominance, can transform into fully functional males. 

Besides humans, predators of hogfish include larger fish and sharks. 

Unless they have an untimely demise, say to become a hogfish sandwich in Key West, they can live up to 11 years.

Here is the bad news.

The level of recreational spear-fishing is estimated to have caused a 30-percent decline in the global population of hogfish with the Florida decline estimated as high as 60 percent, which qualifies it for “vulnerable” status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN )Red List  Although regulations have been introduced across the Caribbean, the threat from exploitation has not ceased

O.K. in the spirit of a balanced column here is other side.

Some folks say hogfish is the perfect fish to eat, not firm or tough — sort of just melts in your mouth. The local catch tastes sweeter than grouper, is flakier than dolphin, and is as rich as scallops. Hogfish can be grilled, pan fried, broiled or baked. The filet of a hog fish is thin and cooks up quickly and the flavor pairs well with tomatoes, lemon, basil or bay leaves, brown rice, and sautéed vegetables.  Yum. 

For Florida hogfish fishing regulations see: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/hogfish/

For more on hogfish see: https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Gallery/Descript/Hogfish/Hogfish.html

A hogfish recipe can be seen at: http://www.livestrong.com/article/548240-how-to-cook-hog-fish/

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier three years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.