Barracuda-Fish with a "Bad Rep"

    There are few animals, with the exception of sharks, that make even the most experienced swimmer or diver more than a little cautious. It is no surprise that barracuda, equipped with a set of ferocious fang-like teeth, have a reputation as fierce predators. Despite their threatening presence and their evolution into successful predacious marine fish, barracuda rarely attack humans. And once one gets past their intimidating appearance, much can be learned about these fish.

    In the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, exist eighteen species of barracuda. Most species prefer the clean water habitat of coral reefs, while other smaller species choose to live in muddier and shallow water. These smaller species also favor swimming in large schools for protection from predators and to more effectively find food.

    Larger species, such as the Great Barracuda, live a solitary existence in tropical waters worldwide, including Belize. With a long and slender body covered with small scales, this species can grow to six feet in length. In addition to a streamlined body, barracuda have a hard bony skeleton covered by strong muscles that help propel them through water at great speeds. This speed becomes useful when it is time to feed.

    To become a successful feeder, the Great Barracuda developed a technique of racing through a school of fish with its blade like teeth attacking the helpless fish. After it injures and immobilizes some of the fish, the barracuda returns to snatch them up. It is clear that barracuda have truly honed in on their predatory skills. Often, in fact, barracudas use their highly evolved instincts to take advantage of the disorder that occurs around dusk, when the nighttime fish switch places with the daytime fish. It is at this time, when their prey least expect it, that barracuda make their attack.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
    The prey of choice for the Great Barracuda is fish that feed on algae growing on the coral reef. Sometimes, though, eating these herbivorous fish can be a problem. In certain tropical reefs around the world, including Belize, coral contain a naturally occurring poison known as ciguatera. Thus, when the choice algae-feeding prey ingest this poison and are then consumed in great number by the barracuda, the level of toxins becomes quite high. Consequently, when people eat the toxin-laden barracuda, they can become very ill, with symptoms including numbed appendages and blurred vision. For this reason, people often test the toxicity of barracuda meat by first feeding it to an unknowing dog or cat.

    Consumption of toxic barracuda meat is the only valid fear that humans should have of these fish. There are reports of a barracuda biting a human, but these are very rare. Only occasionally when a barracuda is extremely hungry will it attack anything shiny that passes its way, including a watch or dive equipment.

    The greater concern should be placed on the status of barracuda in Belize. As with other reef fish, barracuda are being over-fished at an alarming rate. Reports from the Hol Chan Marine Reserve claim that not only are fewer adult barracuda observed in the reserve, but also many are accidentally caught in traps located on the leeward side of the island.

    Now is the time to develop a management policy that allows threatened reef fishing (including barracuda) to be valued as a sustainable resource so that populations can again thrive.

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