Tag Archives: snapper

Mystery fish is revealed as snapper from Tahiti

Published September 30, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Tahitian fish called the blacktail snapper can be found in Hawaii. This fish was found at a Ko Olina lagoon. Courtesy Gary Walden

Reader Gary Walden snorkels most days in Ko Olina Lagoon No. 4 and emailed the following, with a picture: “I cannot find the name of this fish.”

I didn’t know the fish name either, but thought it was probably one of Hawaii’s rascally wrasses. Those reef fish are tricksters to us snorkelers because worldwide there are 460 species in the family, and of those, Hawaii hosts 43.

That might not be so hard to sort out, except that some baby wrasses look so different from their parents that in the past, researchers considered the youngsters separate species and gave them their own scientific names. The true identity of the young wrasses became apparent when they gradually changed into their adult colors.

As if that’s not enough to confuse even seasoned fish watchers, some wrasses change body color dramatically after they’re adults, switching from female to male as the need in a wrasse harem demands.

Since I was feeling a bit under the weather when I received Gary’s email, I carried my fish ID book to the couch, lay back and started paging through wrasse pictures. Nothing, however, popped out resembling the Ko Olina No. 4 fish. Frustrated and sleepy, I tossed the book toward the coffee table where it fell off the edge.

And behold! When I reached down to pick up the guide, there was Gary’s fish staring up at me. The guide had fallen open to the snapper family and lay open on the precise page.

Gary’s fish is called a blacktail, or flametail, snapper, Lutjanus fulvus. The blacktail snapper has no Hawaiian name because it’s a Tahitian fish, not native to Hawaii waters. Tahitians call it to’au.

Hawaii hosts only two native coral reef snappers (we have three deep-water species: opakapaka, ulaula and onaga) and since snappers are delicious, in 1956 state fisheries managers brought blacktails here from Moorea, an island in French Polynesia.

Those snappers were roamers. Only weeks after their release in Kaneohe Bay, anglers caught them in North Shore’s Waimea Bay and others were caught off Honolulu.

To’au never became abundant, however, and in 1958, officials tried again, this time bringing to Hawaii bluestripe snappers, called ta’ape in Tahitian, from the Marquesas.

Although the introduction was well-intended, bringing the 12- to 13-inch-long fish to Hawaii was a mistake. Even though the ta’ape did well in Hawaii waters, and the to’au are hanging in there, they never caught on as food fish. A third introduced species called the paddletail snapper is rare here today.

Even so, Hawaii’s immigrant snappers have their charms, being attractive and — who knew? — psychic too. The next time someone sends me a snapper picture, I’ll just throw my fish book at the wall and let the fish find itself.

Ta‘ape, a 1950s import, has spelled trouble here

Published June 16, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Twice last week, I heard that ta’ape (also called bluestripe snapper) are causing problems in Hawaii. On one occasion, a state official mentioned the possibility of the fish crowding Hanauma Bay. Another time, I saw an exhibit that stated these fish are responsible for the depletion of some native species.

Are these fish really such troublemakers, I wondered? How do we know? And if it’s true, what can be done?

Ta’ape is the French Polynesian name for a type of snapper the state’s Division of Fish and Game (now DLNR) introduced into Hawaiian waters in the 1950s. Officials believed this species would be a valuable commercial fish here and released about 3,200 into waters around Oahu.

This intentional transfer sounds shocking to our environmentally sensitive ears of today, but back then, moving species around was often an innocent effort to do good. Wildlife officials concentrated on the jobs and food the introduction might create instead of its potential problems.

Things have changed, of course, and now we’re bending over backward to keep nonnative plants and animals out of Hawaii. But we’re stuck forever with some of the old introductions, such as ta’ape.

These pretty yellow fish with the bright blue stripes not only survived in that 1950s release — they flourished. Schools of ta’ape have been seen near all the main Hawaiian Islands as well as the islands of Hawaii’s northwest chain up to Midway.

That’s too bad because today nearly everyone believes bringing these fish to Hawaii was a mistake.

People here, it turns out, don’t like to eat ta’ape as much as they like native snappers, such as opakapaka, ehu and onaga. So even though the ta’ape catches are large, the demand is low and the fish aren’t lucrative.

Native snappers, however, are lucrative. The problem with these species is that their numbers are dwindling to a point where the state is in the process of implementing new fishing restrictions to save the industry.

Why are native snappers so scarce? Some people believe that ta’ape eat the young. Others claim that ta’ape are outcompeting the native species for their favorite foods such as crabs, shrimp and small fish. Still others think the native species have been overfished.

True answers to this problem are hard to find. Fisheries biologists have difficulty studying native snappers because they live several hundred feet deep, far beyond scuba limits.

Are ta’ape down there by the hoards eating the more valuable snappers or gobbling up all their food? No one knows.

Ta’ape also live in shallow waters and have been blamed for shortages of goatfish, squirrelfish and Kona crabs.

In 1980, researchers examined the stomach contents of both ta’ape and one kind of squirrelfish in a section of Oahu. The two species had eaten different food, showing no clear competition between the two.

But this was just one limited study done a long time ago. University of Hawaii fisheries biologist Jim Parrish is planning a more extensive study in which fishermen, who know the most about these fish, will be invited to help with field research.

Meantime, even if researchers learn that ta’ape are outcompeting or eating our fish, the aliens are here to stay. There’s no way to eradicate a species that has spread through 1,500 miles of ocean.

One solution to the ta’ape problem is for Hawaii residents to eat more of these fish. Ta’ape are popular food fish in French Polynesia; some positive public relations by the state could make them popular here too.

Another solution is for Hawaii anglers to support upcoming regulations for bottomfish. Whatever the cause of their shortage, native snappers need help.