Fish (Saltwater Osteichtyes)


Fish (Saltwater Osteichthyes)

The following list contains 202 species of bony fishes that have been recorded in the ocean waters immediately adjacent to Martha’s Vineyard. The most thorough survey of fish from our area was completed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the results of which were published by Sumner et al. (1913). This list has been updated for significant changes in the taxonomy of this group since that time. In addition to those mentioned here, Sumner et al. (1913) also found another 54 species of marine fish in the area bounded by the outer Cape to the west side of Buzzards Bay, so the list below cannot be considered an exhaustive one for our area. Aside from this work, other publications on the island’s marine fish consulted are Smith (1899), Kendall (1906), Culbert and Raleigh (2001) and that of Elvin (1966), which has interesting commentary on changes in historical abundance. 

Much of the original information on seasonality and abundance of these species came from fishermen who maintained fish weirs along the shorelines of the island. Elvin (1964) also wrote a charming history of the fish traps of the Vineyard, of which there were 35 along the shore from Gay Head to Oak Bluffs, one at Cape Poge, and two at Nomans Land Island. These traps were an important part of island economic life from at least the 1700s until the last one was abandoned in 1949. Unusual specimens were taken regularly to the researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who did extensive seining in island waters themselves.      

The following list is broken down only to the level of Order rather than to Family as in the case of most other chapters. Nearly 80 separate Families would otherwise have to be included, which are probably only of interest to those particularly fascinated by that aspect of taxonomy; all the Family names are available in Nelson et al. (2004). Orders are listed alphabetically within each Class, and within each Order, species are listed alphabetically by generic name.

Perhaps the most striking aspect about the list that follows is the number of species many would consider primarily tropical that have been found at Martha’s Vineyard. At least 24 such species have been found, including Reticulate Moray Eel, Striped Parrotfish, Bonefish, Reef Squirrelfish, Tarpon, Marlin-spike Grenadier, Gray Angelfish, Atlantic Spadefish (Angelfish family), Bermuda Sea Chub, Southern Puffer, four species of Grouper, and three species each of both Flyingfish and Triggerfish. In some cases, these fish were found at or near the northern-most known localities for their species. The obvious explanation for their presence is the Gulf Stream. Eddies of warm water (up to 68-74° F) that calve off the main Gulf Stream, which is 120-150 miles out to sea, regularly bring warm-water species here. 

Conversely, there appear to be very few species known here that are characteristic of colder waters to the north. The most conspicuous examples are Arctic Rockling and Arctic Ocean Pout, both near the extreme southern limit of their known present range. However, both these latter species and other northern ones must have occurred in this area regularly just after the departure of the continental ice sheet when the ocean was much colder than it is now. 

Interestingly, a few species thought to occur primarily in the eastern Atlantic have also been found here: Spanish Sardine, European Anchovy, and African Pompano. There are also a few species whose normal distributions include northern European waters. In summary, however, the zoogeographical affinities of the known marine fish fauna are much more heavily biased toward southern elements than northern ones.

Through the courtesy of Dr. Robert Kennedy, we have learned of several additional species recently found at Nantucket which could also easily occur in our waters. Eight of these are tropical species: Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), Scamp (Mycteroperca phenax), Lane Snapper (Lutjanus synagris), Gray Snapper (L. griseus), Bicolor Damselfish (Stegastes partitus), Blue Angelfish (Holacanthus bermudensis), Spotted Scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri), and Spotfin Mojarra (Eucinostomus argenteus). Another five species which are of primarily northern or widespread distributions found at Nantucket are Four Beard Rockling (Enchelyopus cimbrius), Pilotfish (Naucates doctor), Black Drum (Pogonias cromis), Flying Gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans), and Rock Gunnel (Pholis fasciata).   

The Smallmouth Flounder (Etropus microstomus) record is from eDNA (short for environmental DNA) found at Inkwell Beach in 2018 (Ausubel & Stoeckle 2019). The term eDNA refers DNA that aquatic animals shed in aquatic environments. This introduction to eDNA provides an overview of eDNA analysis and its potential applications (Stoeckle et al. 2018). The ease and relative low cost of this sampling technique may make large-scale surveys much more feasible in coming years.

A history of the Alewife fishery on the island and elsewhere in the Commonwealth is given by Belding (1921) and of the eel fishery here by MacKenzie (1995). Recent detailed references on the distribution of nearly all the species that occur in our area are Bigelow and Schroeder (1953) and Collette and Klein-MacPhee (2002). A standard reference for both the common English names and scientific names of all U. S. species and for their taxonomic sequence is Nelson et al. (2004).

Allan Keith; edited by Matt Pelikan and Luanne Johnson, December 13, 2023


Ausubel, J., and M. Stoeckele. 2019. [eDNA finds fishes at Inkwell Beach]. Unpublished data.

Belding, D. L. 1921. A report upon the Alewife fisheries of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game, Boston. 135 pp. [reprinted in 1964]. 

Bigelow, H. B. and W. C. Schroeder. 1953. Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. U. S. Department of the Interior, Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Vol. 53. U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. 577 pp.

Colette, B. B. and G. Klein-MacPhee. 2002. Bigelow and Schroeder’s Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. Third edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C. 748 pp.

Culbert, W. and L. Raleigh. 2001 The Ecology of coastal salt ponds – a pilot study at Long Point Wildlife Refuge, West Tisbury and Chilmark. The Trustees of Reservations, Vineyard Haven, MA. 74 pp. 

Elvin, J. B. 1964. The passing of an era on the Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer 5(4):84-119.

Elvin, J. B. 1966. The fishes of Martha’s Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer, 7(3):255-278.

Kendall, W. C. 1906. An account of Tisbury Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, with a list of  fishes collected in October and November 1906. U. S. Bureau of Fisheries, 8 pp.

MacKenzie, C. L. 1995. The eel fishery of Martha’s Vineyard. The Dukes County Intelligencer 36(3):120-144.

Nelson, J. S., E. J. Crossman, H. Espinosa-Perez, L. T. Findley, C. R. Gilbert, R. N. Lea, and J. D. Williams. 2004. Common and scientific names of fishes from the United States, Canada and Mexico. Special Publication 29. American Fisheries Society. 386 pp. 

Smith, H. M. 1899. Fish fauna of the Woods Hole region. Science, Vol. X, No. 259, pp. 878 – 881.

Stoeckle, M., Ausubel, J., & Gaffney, P. (2018). eDNA 101. The Rockefeller University, New York, NY.

Sumner, F. B., R. C. Osborn, and L. J. Cole. 1913. A biological survey of the waters of Woods Hole and vicinity. Section 1: Physical and Zoological, and Section 3: A catalogue of the marine fauna. In Bowers, G. M., Comm., Bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries, Vol. 31, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.  860 pages.