Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents,  and illegal dumping.  Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

I’ll Take Menhaden!

Okay, maybe Rosemary Clooney never sang “I’ll Take Menhaden,” but this fish is lately turning our city into islands of joy.

Reports are coming in from the Newtown Creek, Hudson River, and upper East River that menhaden, locally known as pogy and most often bunker fish, are appearing in huge numbers. The video above was posted by Riverkeeper, the most active nongovernmental estuary environmental litigator in our estuary. That’s great news for whales and other sea mammals, as well as bluefish, striped bass, herons, egrets, and other larger fish predators. You’ll see huge swaths of water dance and glint when bunkers breach to escape predators below. Before they’re ever visible, they ride currents into our estuary as eggs and hatch here, to grow from larvae into adult fish.

Bunkers do more than directly sustain these other cherished species as food. For their ability to clean water, these silvery schoolers can be seen as mobile oysters. As “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg notes, “An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute.” Much like huge baleen whales, little bunkers are filter feeders. When their numbers plummet, brown algal tides overtake bays, creating dead zones.

Before European colonization, Native Americans ate these fish and used them as fertilizer because their oiliness is both delectable (fishers say you’ll never have to butter a bunker) and a powerful nutrient. Indeed, the words menhaden and pogy derive from Algonquin terms referencing the fertilizing practice.

Sadly, bunker fish haven’t had a good century. they died in masses in the 1980s when bluefish herded them into hypoxic shallows in the the Long Island Sound. They’ve been overfished for 32 of the past 54 years, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commercial operators spot schools by airplane, deploy refrigerated ships to the area, and catch bunkers with nets and, because they school so densely, vacuums. A single fish oil and fish meal company, Omega Protein, is responsible for 90% of the nation’s catch. It’s not active in the NYC region.

Interestingly, what could spare the bunker is what it eats: algae. Companies are starting to farm algae in vats to produce omega-3 fatty acids and other goods for nutritional supplements and livestock feeds. The controlled setting also prevents mercury contamination and other potential pollutants from entering human food systems.