The sheepshead (Archosargus progatocephalus) is a member of the porgy family (Sparidae), which is made up of about 120 species. Sheepshead is its common name in the Gulf of Mexico but other areas of the United States it is convict fish, sheephead, seabream and southern sheepshead. Some other common names around the world include kubinskiy morskoi karas’ (Russian), rondeau mouton (French), sargo (Spanish), sargo-choupa (Portuguese), and sparus owczarz (Polish).The sheepshead is distributed throughout the western Atlantic in coastal waters from Nova Scotia, south to the Gulf of Mexico with the densest populations occurring off southwest Florida. Sheepsheads are also found in smaller numbers, off the coasts of Central and South America down to Brazil. The sheepshead isn’t seen in the Bahamas, West Indies or Bermuda.This fish occurs mostly inshore around rock jetties, pilings, and piers and in tidal creeks. The sheepshead prefers brackish waters as opposed to straight seawater but you’ll find them off Alabama’s State pier in large numbers during the early spring. This fish moves offshore in late winter and early spring for spawning, which sometimes happens near artificial reefs and navigation buoys. The juveniles live in seagrass flats and over mud bottoms.The sheepshead has an oval-shaped, deep body with a blunt snout and small mouth. The dorsal and anal fins have strong, short spines with long pectoral fins extending past the base of the anal fin when pressed close to the body. The tail fin has a shallow fork.The adults are silver to greenish yellow with a dark back. There are five to six dark vertical bars on each side, which are very obvious in juveniles. The tail and pectoral fins are greenish with the dorsal, anal, and ventral fins colored dusky or black.You may have thought that only sharks had wicked teeth but you’d be well advised not to put your fingers into the mouth of a sheepshead. Teeth of the sheepshead include most of what we’ve come expect in mammals not fish, like incisors, molars, and grinders. At the front of the jaw are incisor-like teeth that tend to jut out. The molars are arranged in three rows in the upper jaw and two rows in the lower jaw. These heavy and strong teeth are used for crushing and grinding the shells of animals that are their prey.Although the record in the Gulf of Mexico is 21.4 pounds, adult sheepshead commonly run about one to eight pounds and 14 to 18 inches. The maximum known lifespan of the sheepshead is at least 20 years maturing on the average at 2 years.Sheepsheads are omnivorous and like teenagers will eat just about anything they can put in their mouths around. They feed on invertebrates, small fish and occasionally plant material. Adults prey on blue crabs, oysters, clams, crustaceans and small fish including young Atlantic croakers. Sheepsheads use their teeth to crush the shells of blue and hermit crabs and scrape barnacles off rocks and pilings. Juveniles feed on zooplankton, polychaetes and chironomid larvae.Sheepsheads spawn primarily in the early spring, though larvae have been found from January through May. Adults migrate offshore to spawn and then return to nearshore waters and estuaries. Spawning frequency ranges from once a day to once every 20 days. Females may produce from 1,100 to 250,000 eggs per spawn. The young are most abundant in seagrass beds and mud bottoms where they feed on copepods and algae. When they reach a length of 50mm juveniles leave the grass beds and mingle with the adults around jetties, piers and pilings.This fish is highly valued due to its white flesh and mild flavor. Its heavy scales and strong spines make it a chore to fillet. It’s marketed both fresh and frozen and is cooked by broiling, microwaving and baking. Commercially, the majority of sheepshead is take as by-catch by shrimp trawlers and tossed back. They can also be caught by longlines, seines and trammel nets. Commercial catches of sheepshead have historically been the largest off the coast of Florida, Texas, and Louisiana.
Think Global – Act Local!