The Pinfish, A Most Critical Member of the Food Chain
by Owen James Burke
Above: A great blue heron holds a pinfish in its beak (Photo: Michael Fitzsimmons/Getty)
Every summer, before heading out to the edge of the Gulf Stream off the Outer Banks of North Carolina with Captain Reid Robinson, we’d spend time inshore, catching pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) for bait. Catching them reminded me of fishing for sunfish and bluegills in small ponds as a kid. They were plentiful, and though small, put up a good fight for a small kid. But then, they were just bait, right?
Wrong. Pinfish, which are born eating plankton, develop an enzyme as the grow which allows them to digest plant cellulose. These adults graze on seagrass, found in shallow lagoons and estuaries from the Caribbean Sea up the eastern seaboard of the United States all the way up to Massachusetts. Research (based mostly on manatees and turtles) has suggested that grazing actually helps nourish seagrass beds, sort of like the way a wildfire replenishes a forest.
In areas of seagrass depletion, the waste that pinfish leave behind also fertilizes the grass beds. Next time you’re on a grass flat, look at areas where pinfish are or have been (around rock clusters, or sandy circular dens where fish nest) and note the surrounding lushness.
Predators of the pinfish (snook, sea trout, and further on in their mature lives, as they enter open water, amberjack, grouper and snapper) have seen population increases in recent years due to any combination of unidentified factors, but also largely to conservation efforts. Pinfish, however, have not.
Though not immediately threatened, these crucial members of the Atlantic food chain need protection, and conscientious harvesting at the very least. What can you do? If you’re a fisherman using pinfish for bait, the best thing you can do is to make sure you harvest them from healthy areas. The small dwindling grass bed against the mangrove along the oxygen-depleted waters of your polluted marina is not an area that can withstand too much fishing pressure. However convenient it is for you to gather your bait 30 seconds from the dock, give those fish a break, and head out to healthier, more oxygenated grass beds where the species is flourishing, and taking a net full of them won’t pose such a substantial threat to the residing population.