For those unfamiliar with the ocean depths, the Atlantic croaker, also known as the hardhead or silver badger, may be somewhat of a mystery. This small saltwater fish is highly sought-after by recreational anglers due to its savory flavor and abundance in inshore waters along the Atlantic coast. In addition to being found in the Atlantic, smaller populations exist around the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific coastline from California to Baja Mexico. Although these small fish can be found from shallow marshes to oceanside surf, they will typically remain near the bottom of their natural habitat.
Atlantic croaker, Micropogonias undulatus, are a type of drum. Other drums are found around the world and several different species are sold as food in many markets. The Atlantic croaker, however, is most easily recognized by its large silver scales and striking banjo-like shape. A full grown Atlantic croaker can reach a size of 21 inches in length and weigh up to three pounds. Despite its large size they are usually caught around the 8 - 10 inch range.
The Atlantic croaker feeds primarily on seafood such as small fishes, crustaceans and bivalves. Adult croakers will also feed on fish roe, or eggs from other species, as well as some plant materials. It has even been seen in research studies that the Atlantic croaker would feed on their own eggs during certain times of the year. The fish spawn in the late summer and fall months, typically taking advantage of high salinity water bodies such as the Gulf of Mexico and offshore habitats.
Although the Atlantic croaker has a keen eye when it comes to feeding, they may not be as swift when it comes to avoiding predators. The majority of their predators are larger fishes and some seabirds. It is during these times of predation that the croaker's signature "croaking" sound is made. Their ability to make this sound is made possible through their swim bladder, which allows them to make noise when vibrated. The sound is used as an announcement of presence for possible mates and as a warning to predators.
The Atlantic croaker is an important species for recreational and commercial fishermen alike. It is commonly eaten for its sweet white flesh, which is mild and flaky. The meat is low in fat content and can be cooked in any number of ways. This makes it ideal for baking, broiling, steaming, or poaching. It is also popularly used in fish tacos, stews, and soups.
In addition to being a tasty feast, the Atlantic croaker is sought after by commercial fishermen for its bycatch. Bycatch is the unintended catch of other fish while targeting a particular species. Since the croaker tends to inhabit deeper waters and areas of poor visibility, they can be easily caught along with more commercially valuable species such as striped bass, cod, and flounder. This allows fishermen to diversify their catch and help to sustain the Atlantic croaker population.
The Atlantic croaker may not be the biggest or most sought-after fish in the ocean, but it's certainly one of the tastiest. Not only is it a great way to mix up a seafood dinner, but its presence has also been known to benefit larger and more commercially important species. For this reason, it's important to practice safe and responsible fishing practices when pursuing the Atlantic croaker so that their population can continue to be a source of joy for generations to come.