They’re small but flashy, and a vital part of the ecosystem and nearshore fisheries.
The Atlantic silverside (menidia menidia) is not on the top of your list as an important gamefish, however, this species is a very important prey species, and their abundance is relied upon by bluefish, Atlantic mackerel, and striped bass for their survival.
Silversides are a small silvery fish that are usually seen by swimmers right near the shore, rushing in and out with the crashing waves. I cannot tell you how many people keep telling me “do you see all the minnows?” while walking along any ocean-facing beach. Well, minnows are a freshwater fish, and do not live in the ocean. The fish you may think are minnows are actually Atlantic silversides.
Atlantic Silversides can be found from the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence River in Canada south to the northeast part of Florida along the East Coast. The silverside gets its name from the metallic silver stripe that runs along the lateral line on both sides of its’ body. This species will feed upon algae, small crustaceans, copepods, amphipods, annelid worms, zooplankton, insects, squid, and shrimp.
This species is also known as a spearing, shiner, or minnow, and is one of the most important forage species found in estuarine waters. In addition to the large gamefish that rely on this tiny animal for food, egrets, gulls, blue crabs, terns, cormorants, and other small fish species will feed upon silversides. In addition, even smaller predators such as the mummichog, will feed on the silversides larvae and eggs.
These fish are small – animals closer to shore will usually be approximately 2 inches in length, and as they grow, they move further offshore and grow to a maximum size of about six inches in length.
The Atlantic silverside is easy to identify from other small silvery swimmers in the ocean. They have a distinct silvery stripe running along the lateral line of the fish, a smaller eye and mouth as compared to its’ body size, and a pelvic fin that is closer to the front of its’ body than any other silvery swimmer you may encounter. They have a sleek, elongated body with a rounded tummy. The upper portion of their body is grey/green in color with a clear to white bottom.
Silversides spawn between May to July each year during periods of when the full, or new moon takes place during the time of high tide. During this time, they will congregate in large schools and broadcast scatter their eggs along the sandy bottom of your local estuary. The will eggs hatch in approximately 5 to 20 days, depending on the prevailing water temperatures. Warmer water will cause the eggs to hatch sooner, while colder water will delay their development and hatching. Water temperature also controls how many of the tiny larvae will survive and become either male or female silversides. Colder waters encountered by the larvae between 32 to 46 days after hatching will cause more females to form, while warmer waters will result in a greater number of males forming.
Just after they hatch, the young larvae will feed upon other plankton and can be eaten by other species of animals that also feed on plankton. Atlantic Silversides have a short life span, and typically only live to be about two years of age. Most will die after spawning when they are approximately one year old.
Atlantic silversides prefer to live in brackish waters to full, ‘ocean strength’ salt water and are very adaptable to live in either high, or low salinity waters. They are frequently observed in thick, massive schools close to shore hunting for a snack. During summer months, when the water is warm, they can be easily caught by using a dipping net in shallow waters in local creeks, and bays.
They are a bit more fragile than larger fish species, and perish quickly when removed from the water. It is important that when netting these fish for bait, that you move quickly and get them back into water as soon as possible. As the water temperature begins to cool in the fall, silversides will move out deeper where the water usually remains at a constant temperature even during the coldest winters.