Long Island Books: The Ways of the Finned

“Do Fish Sleep?” cover
“Do Fish Sleep?” by Judith S. Weis - Rutgers University Press, $21.95

    “Do Fish Sleep?” by Judith S. Weis of Rutgers University is a new book about, what else, fish. It follows closely on the heels of a book she co-wrote with a colleague, “Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History.”
    Before I tell you about her latest publication, I must tell you something about Ms. Weis and her husband, Peddrick. They are both biologists who have been spending summers for many, many years in Springs, not far from Accabonac Harbor.

“Do Fish Sleep?”
Judith S. Weis
Rutgers University Press, $21.95

    Some 25 years ago I became concerned with the expanding use of wood pressure-treated with chromium, copper, and arsenic in East Hampton harbors and tidal creeks. I searched far and wide for biologists who were heavy-metal toxicologists in an effort to find one who knew something about this poisonous combination that killed boring marine worms and other wood-destroying marine organisms.
    I called here and there and finally out of desperation asked the Weises if they would take up the study of the effects of C.C.A.-treated wood on marine life. Without hesitation they took it up and before long they demonstrated that the treated wood killed not only marine life but also many other marine organisms, including mud snails, of the common gastropods inhabiting Accabonac Harbor and other East Hampton bodies of water.
    Their research and the research of others who followed eventually led to bans on the use of such wood in marine waters on the East and West Coasts. Locally, the East Hampton Town Trustees followed by their Southampton counterparts nixed the use of treated wood in their jurisdictional waters.
    “Do Fish Sleep?” is a fascinating book covering just about every aspect of fish life for readers of every age. It is scientific yet written in easily understandable language, in a style that many scientists are incapable of equaling. It’s a book that the layperson or ichthyologist can read and comprehend in almost one sitting.
    In either case the reader will discover a whole world of interesting and exciting facts about fishes, their makeup, their lifestyles, and the ways they survive and reproduce. I call myself an ichthyologist, having majored in fish study at the University of California-Santa Barbara and having taught about fishes in colleges for 10 years thereafter, yet about three-quarters of the stuff in this book I had almost no knowledge of. Anyone having to take a comprehensive test, say, a Ph.D. oral, in fish biology should read and master this book beforehand. It covers just about everything piscine from A to Z and circumglobally from Podunkville to Timbuktu.
    I knew that some fish like the giant Pacific sea bass start out as males then become females, but I didn’t know there were fish that could change their sex almost instantaneously when duty calls. The blue-headed wrasse of the Pacific is one of those that almost can. If the largest male in a group dies, the largest female converts to that gender. In a matter of hours she acts like the male and takes over the pack. Other fish species are able to switch back and forth depending upon the need.
    The mangrove killifish combines male and female parts in an ovotestes it fertilizes itself and produces normal offspring. In a species of anglerfish that lives at great depths, when the female feels the urge she doesn’t have to hunt around in the dark for the male; he is just another organ permanently attached to her body.
    Fish are able to forage in ingenious ways. The archerfish spits at an insect on a leaf above the water to “shoot it down” for food.
    Electric fishes such as the electric eel, electric ray, and electric catfish can use their powerful discharges like a Taser to stun both prey and predators for eating or escaping. The elephant fishes, small but intelligent swimmers with long trunk-like snouts, create electrical fields around their bodies. When the fields are disrupted by an approaching predator, the elephant fish knows something is up and makes its escape.
    There are the “troublesome” fish that Ms. Weis writes about that invade our waters and disrupt the native fish community, such as the Asian carp that live in Midwest rivers and are getting into Lake Michigan, or the snakehead, also from Asia, a voracious predator without enemies that was let go from New York’s Chinatown into a Maryland pond.
    They are becoming widespread, as they can take oxygen from the air and travel over land from one pond to another. The red lionfish from the Pacific introduced into tropical Atlantic waters is exquisite to look at but toxic to the touch. It has spread up the coast as far as New England and is not uncommon in the Great South and Shinnecock Bays of Long Island. Its vivid appearance advertises its toxicity, and it has very few natural enemies.
    There are fish that light up, so-called bioluminescent fish, such as the flashlight fish that has a little “headlight” next to each eye. It’s one I studied in college, the midshipman of West Coast waters.
    There are fish that make sounds. One of the best at this is our own oyster toadfish, which attracts females with its mating calls and scares off would-be predators with foghorn blasts.
    Some fish school to become a “super-individual” to confuse would-be predators, in the way that starlings flock in a tight formation to put off attacks by merlins and Cooper’s hawks. Then there are the tunas, which school for predatory purposes, herding smaller schooling fish such as mackerel into tight packs where they are easily preyed on.
    Sargassum fishes resemble the floating sargassum they stay close to — a carnivorous fish isn’t going to bother eating seaweed or a fish that looks like seaweed. Some fish hide in sea cucumbers and bivalve mollusks, others remain motionless for hours so as not to be detected and eaten.
    How many of you knew that the ubiquitous killifish, the mummichog of our own salt creeks and harbors, spawns in the salt marsh cordgrass, and that the developing eggs and emerging larvae can live on the wet marsh surface among the cordgrass roots, where they find protection from predators until ready to head for open water? I didn’t.
    There are chapters on recreational fishing — catch-and-release fishing, for instance — and on commercial fishing, where quotas are such that fishermen often have to let more fish go from their nets than they take home. Most of this bycatch dies and becomes food for scavengers that in turn gain the upper hand in the underwater ecosystem. They don’t have to hunt down their food; because of fishing regulations, it is handed down fresh to them.
    Aquaculture is explored under the specter of a booming industry as the oceans’ fish populations lose ground to fishing, environmental disasters, and acts of God. Raising fish for food to satisfy the tastes of six billion-plus fish-eating humans is on the way to taking over the market.
    Fish and nutrition, an up-and-coming concern of mothers, restaurateurs, doctors, and dieticians, is examined in another chapter. Most fish are nutritious, but some are more nutritious than others. Some contain mercury and toxic chemicals.
    The author tells us which fish do best in an aquarium and which don’t and why. Some fish are more prone to suffer from disease organisms — bacteria, fungi, fish lice, tapeworms, etc. — than others.
    I could go on and on, but space is limited.
    “Do Fish Sleep?” is a delightful book that can be used as a textbook in an ichthyology or fishery biology course, as a reference, like a dictionary or encyclopedia, or for pleasurable reading, which is the sort of thing that I am up to these days. Its 216 pages are jam-packed with fish knowledge and fish lore, and the illustrations of fish and fishing gear complement the text. For the serious student of ichthyological literature there is a reference section at the end of each chapter.