RARE AND UNCOMMON FISHES FROM
THE SEAS OFF SUSSEX
by the late John Barker



I have concentrated on the rare and unusual fishes caught by fishermen, or found whilst rockpooling or diving in all months of the year.

 The following list of fishes have been recorded off the Sussex coast in the last 35 years:

Gilthead Bream
Halibut
Solenette
Sturgeon
Sunfish
Red Band Fish
Clingfish
Sea Snails
Basking Shark
Boar Fish
Marbled Electric Ray
Trigger Fish
Snake Pipefish
Bonito

 Specimens marked with an asterisk* have been verified by Alwyne Wheeler at the British Museum of Natural History (London).

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Gilthead Bream *

Sparus aurata

 In 1967 I sent an unfamiliar fish to Alwyne Wheeler for identification. It had been caught in a trawl off Worthing, West Sussex, after strong southerly gales in late October. Alwyne Wheeler identified the fish as a Gilthead Bream. It weighed 1.13 kg. Since then, two more specimens have been recorded, one in November 1968, from a trammel net off Littlehampton, and the other was noticed in the Brighton fish market in 1971. It was caught by a local boat.

This fish is a southerly species caught occasionally off the Cornish and Devon coasts, but rarely caught east of the Isle of Wight.
 


Halibut

Hippoglossus hippoglossus

On 20 February 1979, Charter Boat skipper Jim Murrell on the "Sea Witch" arrived back at Brighton Marina with a 2.83 kg. Halibut. This fish had been taken nine miles out of Brighton on a strip of herring in 30 metres of water. This fish was the first of the species recorded off Sussex and in the Eastern English Channel recording area.

This is the largest of the British flatfishes, with weights exceeding 300 kg, and is usually found in depths of water of over 100 metres. Seas of this depth are only found off the western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. However, the young fish, like the one caught, spend their lives inshore in shallower water for between 2 and 4 years.

Solenette

Buglossidium luteum

 This small flatfish is often found amongst the "trash" on a trawlers' deck, and is called 'Lambs Tongue Soles' by the commercial fishermen. Because of its small size, it is only present when there is a mixture of weed and fish in the cod end. At other times it will easily escape through the large mesh of the net. It reaches a maximum length of 13 cm and is a true sole of the family Soleidae. It lives on sandy bottoms.

Sturgeon

Acipenser sturio

 A 10 kg (33 lb) Sturgeon was found by a boy in Bosham Harbour, West Sussex, in May 1964, stranded just off the main stream in a pool. It was taken to a Chichester fishmonger by the boy's mother and she was paid four shillings (20 pence) for it. (Information from the Sussex Gazette).

A Sturgeon, 127 cm (4 ft 2 in) long was caught by Keith Schofield, skipper of the trawler "Susan Bird" fishing out of Brighton Marina on 16 January 1986. The fish was taken in a beam trawl, nine miles off Worthing in 30 metres, on a sand and shingle bottom.

A 6.7 kg (14 lb 12 oz) Sturgeon, just over a metre in length, was captured by the Sussex trawler "Blanche Allen" fishing five miles off Rye Harbour in the early 1990's.

The Sturgeon is a rare vagrant in British seas. It is debatable whether it ever bred in the larger British rivers

Sunfish

Mola mola

 A very large specimen of this occasional visitor was run down by a fishing boat off Shoreham Harbour in July 1971. The two anglers tried unsuccessfully to get it into the boat. Eventually, they released it and it swam away, apparently unconcerned.

In 1979, a 5.4 kg (12 lb) Sunfish was given to Brighton Aquarium. It had been caught in a landing net in Brighton Marina, but, alas, it died within a few hours. I made a cast of this fish and found the flesh and stomach full of nematode worms, some deeply embedded in the muscles.

The Sunfish is a large ocean wanderer, found in all the warmer seas. The fish drifts with the currents and occasionally fish are washed into the seas to the west of the British Isles, but only very rarely as far east as the seas off Sussex.
 
 

Red Band Fish *

Cepola rubescens
Red Band Fish (Photograph by David Wood)
In February 1970, a Worthing fisherman found a fish amongst the seaweed after a bad storm that he was unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, the fish died before I could get there, so I sent the preserved body to Alwyne Wheeler who was able to verify my identification. This fish is rare in the Eastern English Channel and I gave the fish to them for their collection.

The Red-band fish is a small fish, elongate like an eel, that lives in vertical burrows in mud. The burrows may be destroyed in storms and the fish are sometimes washed on to the strandline.

Photograph on the Fishing Board Forum
 
 

Clingfish *

Family: Gobiesocidae

 I have been fortunate to discover two species of clingfish on the shore in Sussex, the first from a Black Rock pool, before the Marina was built over this interesting bit of shore.

The first was identified by Alwyne Wheeler in 1961 as the Two-spotted Clingfish, Diplecogaster bimaculata, and was discovered in a rock pool at Black Rock. However, at the time there may have been confusion with the next species, as positive identification can only be made by examination of the teeth under the microscope. This fish had been previously recorded in the eastern English Channel.

The second clingfish was the Small-headed Clingfish, Apletodon dentatus (=A. microcephalus), also taken from a pool at Black Rock in 1974 and also positively identified by Alwyne Wheeler. This was the first record of this fish off Sussex and in the eastern English Channel.

Andy Horton caught a small clingfish at Kingston beach, Shoreham-by-Sea in 1979. It had been inadvertently captured with a clump of Irish Moss, Chondrus crispus which was placed in the aquarium. The small fish actually discovered by a visitor. The small fish was attached by its sucker to a whelk shell in the aquarium. The sucker was reckoned to help protect it, but not from predation, apparently, because shortly afterwards its was also discovered by a Bullhead, Taurulus bubalis, which immediately swallowed it. It remained unidentified for many years, but it is now confirmed as Apletodon dentatus. Jon Makeham informs me that when both species are compared the head of the Two-spotted Clingfish is definitely broader.
 
 

 Small-headed Clingfish

 Photograph by Richard Jones (Trowbridge)

In the late 1980's Andy Horton found another young specimen of the Small-headed Clingfish, about 10 mm long, in the holdfasts of some washed up kelp on Worthing beach. It lived inside a whelk shell for several months and was photographed, rather poorly because of its small size, but good enough for identification purposes.
 
 

Sea Snails *

Liparis spp.

 Working on a trawler in March 1961, I retrieved a fish I had not seen before, but well known to the fishermen. It was the Sea Snail, Liparis liparis. Since then the only two specimens I have recovered have been from the stomachs of cod. The fish was 18 cm long and was taken in 30 metres over sand, six miles out from Shoreham-by-Sea.
 
 


 

Montagu's Sea Snail
 
 

Whilst shrimping after dark on a very long tide in January 1974, I captured 32 Sea Snails, Liparis montagui, just west of Shoreham Harbour. The Natural History Museum found that the females were gravid, and they think that they spawn locally. All the fish were pink in colour and shaped like large tadpoles.

Report of this fish in March 2002 (Link)
 
 

Basking Shark

Cetorhinus maximus

 Basking Sharks are reported by fishing boats in most years off the Sussex coast. In 1976 a young specimen of 5 metres was towed into Shoreham Harbour by a party of anglers, and hung by the tip of its tail from the footbridge in the middle of town, for the local paper to take photographs. The shark was found with an injury to its head and it had just died. That night it was spirited away and in the morning was discovered in the ornamental pond in the Southwick shopping precinct

Andy Horton could not help but notice a 10 metre long Basking Shark in a metre of water along side the western harbour jetty of Shoreham Harbour, about 1960, cruising slowly in such shallow water that half the fish's body was exposed for over two hours.

13 June 2002

Basking Shark (Sussex Sea Fisheries Committee photograph)

A Basking Shark was spotted off Brighton Marina by the Fisheries Protection Vessel "Sea Harrier" (Sussex Sea Fisheries Committee).

Report by Robert Clark (Sussex Sea Fisheries Committee)
The Basking Shark is a harmless plankton feeder. The largest specimen discovered in British seas was an 8 tonne, 11.12 m (36 ft 6 in) specimen washed ashore at Brighton in 1806. This fish is the largest fish in British seas and second largest fish in the oceans of the world. Concerns have been voiced over the populations of this fish, but very little is known of its biology, breeding, numbers, and behaviour during the winter when it swims into deep water to the west of the British Isles.

British Marine Life Study Society Shark Page 1
Basking Sharks in Cornwall 1998
 
 

Boar Fish *

Capros aper

Boarfish from Hove (Photograph by Peter Weight)2 November 2002
The capture on rod and line by Peter Weight of a Boar Fish, Capros aper, from Hove beach is the very first record of this fish caught from the shore off Sussex. The books say that this fish lives in depths of over 100 metres and as there are no seas of this depth on the English side of the English Channel. This pretty little red and silver fish about 55 mm long, excluding its caudal fin, large eye and large mouth, with a spiky first dorsal and vibrating second dorsal and second anal fins (vibrating like the dorsal fin of a pipefish). Although this fish is rarely caught, it is abundant in deepish water (on the edge of the continental shelf in the western approaches of the English Channel) and it is just that normal fishing methods do not capture this small fish. All  records and especially all live records from the shore or on dives, and all Sussex records are newsworthy.
This fish is thriving in the BMLSS private aquarium (Shoreham-by-Sea). This fish is rarely on display in British Public Aquaria and the only known display of this fish was for several years at Mevagissey Harbour Aquarium.
Previous Report from the Channel Islands
BMLSS Boar Fish

c. October? 1998
A Boar Fish, Capros aper, was washed up dead on Shoreham beach, Sussex, with the identity confirmed by the Natural History Museum in London. The dried fish has been preserved as an ornament.

Report on 7 November 2002 by Mr Viv Smith (Shoreham beach)
An 18 cm long specimen of this attractive little fish was given to me in March 1990 by Freddy Flowers, the skipper of the fishing vessel (static netter) "The Two Brothers". It was taken 8 miles south west of Brighton in 30 metres, close to rocks. After preserving, the fish was given to the Natural History Museum for their collection.

This fish is certainly rare in Sussex seas, but records are more common further west. However, because this is a small fish that inhabits rocky areas near deep water, it will not often be captured by fishing nets.

In April 1991, a small Boar Fish was caught by fishermen off south Cornwall and spent several years in Mevagissey Aquarium.
 
 

Marbled Electric Ray

Torpedo marmorata

This is the rarer of the two electric rays recorded in British seas and is extremely rare off Sussex. I have only seen two, one diving off Worthing in 1979, and the other on show in a tank in Brighton Aquarium in 1981. The latter fish was caught at Saltdean, east Brighton, by a local fisherman. In captivity, feeding was initially a problem, but it finally accepted small shore crabs and frozen sprats, and was was still alive in 1985.

This fish can grow up to 60 cm in length. It is not known to breed in British seas and fish are likely to have migrated up the English Channel in summer.

Report 2008
Report 1  Common ? Electric Ray

Thresher Shark

Alopias vulpinus

This shark is often sighted and is noticeable because of its pronounced tail fin. Some fishermen blame them for the loss of trammel nets, set for flatfish, in which they are sometimes found. I have the tail of a 25 kg (56 lb) shark caught in this way. It was taken off Shoreham Harbour in June 1989.

The Thresher is a predatory shark that will reach up to 4 metres in length and 80 kg in weight from British seas.

The tail is sometimes nailed to the wheel house for luck: to steer fishermen to fish.
 
 

Trigger Fish

Balistes capriscus (=B. carolinensis)

Triggerfish under Palace Pier, Brighton, 1999 (Photograph by Paul Parsons)Photograph by Paul Parsons

 When I first started compiling the list of the rarer fish from off Sussex in 1959, the Trigger Fish was rare in the eastern English Channel. The first one was taken in 1967 from a lobster pot off Worthing. Since then, a large number have been taken each year. In 1995, one trawler had 9 in one haul. They were all returned to the sea alive. This fish is easy to keep in large Public Aquaria and one was usually on show at the old Brighton Aquarium, now the Brighton Sea Life Centre.
 

Snake Pipefish

Entelurus aequoreus

In the 1980s, the Sussex and Hampshire seas and coasts had large amounts of the alien seaweed that was called Japweed, Sargassum muticum. This weed was especially noticeable in the enclosed lagoon inside the locks of Shoreham Harbour at Southwick. In 1982 a large number of juvenile Snake Pipefish were present amongst the weed.


 
 

The Snake Pipefish is normally only recorded from the shore on western coasts, with almost all the BMLSS records coming from south-west Wales. It is certainly rarely captured in the English Channel, but may be under recorded. However, it is regularly discovered off the Dorset coast in May and June.

Snake Pipefish

to be continued

Bonito

16 August 2000
The small tunny known as the Bonito, Sarda sarda, was caught by Jimper Sutton in the nets set for Mackerel off Winchelsea beach, East Sussex. It weighed about 1 kg. Divers have seen tunnies (tuna) in the Mackerel shoals off Sussex, but the fish are rarely caught.
BMLSS Tunnies


 British Marine Life Study Society Homepage

 British Marine Life Study Society Fish Page 1


Gilthead Bream
Halibut
Solenette
Sturgeon
Sunfish
Red Band Fish
Clingfish
Sea Snails
Basking Shark
Boar Fish
Marbled Electric Ray
Trigger Fish
Snake Pipefish
 
 
 
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