Inshore: Species Profile - Gray Triggerfish - The Fisherman

Inshore: Species Profile – Gray Triggerfish

They are tenacious battlers on hook and line and favor baits like squid, clams and sea worms.

Gray triggerfish are found in the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia South to Argentina.  A second population also lives in the Gulf of Mexico. They live on ocean hard bottoms, reefs, and ledges, and near-shore, and off-shore locations, either alone, or in small groups, or schools. Gray triggerfish are also known as taly, leatherjacket, leatherneck, or triggerfish.

Adult triggerfish are mainly olive-gray in color, and have blue spots and lines on the upper body, and dorsal fin, and the upper part of their eyes are blue. Adult fish have the ability to change color, particularly during the spawning season from April to August each year.  Males turn dark charcoal gray, while nesting females vary with contrasting white and black color patterns. Juvenile fish are yellowish with small violet dots, and can have large, irregular dark patches on their body and fins. Juveniles also have saddle markings, and light spots on their dorsal (top), and anal fins.

Gray triggerfish have large incisor teeth, and a deep laterally compressed body covered with tough sandpaper-like skin. Unlike their cousin, the filefish (which are commonly confused with triggerfish), triggerfish have more than one dorsal spine. The gray triggerfish is easy to tell apart from queen triggerfish, where gray’s have a drab coloration, and queen triggerfish have beautiful, rainbow spectrum of color along their bodies and fins.

Gray Triggerfish

Triggerfish get their name from spines on the dorsal fins that can be used as a predator defense and for holding themselves in place on rocky or coral bottom.  The first spine is large, and when upright it remains that way until the fish relaxes the smaller second spine, “triggering” the first. When a triggerfish feels threatened it will dive into a tight crevice, and anchor itself into place by locking its’ rigid spine.

Gray triggerfish can grow up to 13 pounds, 28 inches long, and 16 years old. Males are typically larger than females as is the case with most other species of fish. Triggerfish grow to be sexually mature by the time they are 2 years old. Spawning takes place from April to August.  Male triggerfish create territories, build nests in the sand, and attract females into the nest to spawn.  The two swim tight circles around one another in the nest, quickly changing color, as the female deposits her eggs in the nest immediately after the circling behavior, while the male fertilizes the eggs with his milt, or sperm. Female gray triggerfish may deposit an average of 772,415 eggs.

After fertilization females aerate the eggs by fanning and blowing on them until they hatch. A single male may defend up to three active nest sites on the same reef.  One female on a nest guarding and providing oxygen to the eggs constitutes and active nest location.  The female will also protect her brood from predators including members of the wrasse, grouper, and red snapper families. Eggs will hatch-out in between 24 ti 48 hours, and the larvae float to the surface, where they frequently live among mats of Sargassum, a form of floating brown algae, or seaweed found in the ocean. Larvae and juveniles spend 4 to 7 months in the Sargassum habitat before they move to the ocean floor.

Adults eat bottom invertebrates including crabs, sea urchins, shrimp, sand dollars, lobsters, and other shellfish.  They have a small mouth with a strong jaw, and teeth used to crush, and chisel holes in their hard-shelled food of choice. Gray triggerfish may direct a stream of water over sandy ocean bottom habitat to uncover sand dollars to eat. Juvenile gray triggerfish eat hydroids, barnacles, and a variety of small worm species. Amberjack, grouper, and sharks will eat adult triggerfish, while tuna, dophinfish, marlin, sailfish, and sharks will feed on juvenile gray triggerfish.

Triggerfish are important to both commercial and recreational fishermen. The meat is firm and has a very mild taste.  This species is eaten fresh, smoked, or dried and salted.  It is also prized as an interesting specimen for display in public aquariums. They are tenacious battlers on hook and line and favor baits like squid, clams and sea worms. They are most often found on inshore structure such as jetties, rocky bottom, buoy chains and reefs. They also frequent offshore wrecks.

References used in the preparation of this story include: Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) “Fishes of The Gulf of Maine,” NOAA Fisheries Gray Triggerfish species profile from the Southeast Science Center, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council Gray Fish Regulations, and North Carolina Sea Grant’s “The Biology of Triggerfish.”

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