Wild Florida: Barracuda

Perhaps no fish has had a worse reputation–or deserved it less–than the Barracuda. With its large size, long torpedo shape, big eyes, and large mouth and protruding jaws full of conical teeth, the Barracuda may look sinister and dangerous, but in reality it poses little threat to humans.

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The Barracudas make up the family Sphyraenaidae. There are 27 species found around the world, including the European Barracuda (Sphyraena sphyraena ), the California Barracuda (S. argentea), the Sawtooth Barracuda (S. putnamiae), the Yellowtail Barracuda (S. flavicauda), the Pickhandle Barracuda (S. jello), and the Bigeye Barracuda (S. forsteri). The Barracudas all have long tapering streamlined bodies, large eyes, and protruding lower jaws. Species range in length from 3 or 4 feet to as large as 7 feet. They are all fish-eaters, who ambush their prey with a burst of speed up to 35 mph, seizing it in their needle-sharp teeth.

In Florida, our most prominent species is the Great Barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda (some authorities class it as S. picuda), which can reach lengths over 7 feet and weigh 100 pounds. It is found in tropical seas virtually everywhere except the eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean (it is replaced there by the California Barracuda)–in warm times of the year it has been seen as far north as Massachusetts. It is often a solitary hunter, but can also be found in schools, which may act cooperatively to herd a school of fish into position for attack. They seem to do most of their hunting at night. During the day they are also often seen moving in schools that may sometimes contain hundreds of individuals. They prefer to stay near the water surface, and are seldom found deeper than a hundred feet.

Despite is great size and conspicuousness, very little is actually known about the Barracuda’s lifestyle. Nothing is know about their mating habits, and nobody is sure what determines the timing of their spawning–it may be linked to phases of the moon, or day length. The adults spawn in brackish estuaries where the young can find protection from predators in the mangrove swamps along the shore, until they are big enough to venture out into the open sea. From study of captured specimens, we know that the males seem to reach maturity at about 2 years of age and the females at age 4, at a length of around two feet. Adult specimens have been found as old as 14 years, but we do not know what their maximum lifespan is.

Despite the fearsome reputation that barracudas have, the number of well-documented attacks has actually been very low. There was one non-witnessed fatal attack on a diver off Key West in 1947 that was attributed to a Barracuda, and another in North Carolina in 1957. In most cases where divers have been bitten, it has been because they were spearfishing and the Barracuda tried to take one of their fish, or they were wearing something shiny like a dive knife or jewelry which the Barracuda mistook for prey.

Far more people eat Barracudas than the other way around. In some areas, however, this can be dangerous–when the Barracudas eat particular reef fish that store toxins in their bodies, the ‘Cudas can sometimes retain these toxins too, and poison the people who eat them. Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include stomach cramps and weakness. Because of the danger of ciquaterra poisoning, Barracuda flesh is illegal to sell in the US.

The Barracuda is best-known in Florida as a game fish, prized because it is large, wily, and puts up a fight when hooked. For conservation purposes, nearly all of Florida’s game fishing expeditions are catch-and-release.

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