The Great Mediterranean Barracuda Confusion

In Pollensa Bay schools of Barracuda are a fairly common and appreciated sight, if you’re lucky you might see more than a hundred juveniles swimming together. Barracudas come in many versions and spread over large parts of the globe in tropical and subtropical waters. Some spices grow up to 2m in length, though the European Barracudas are smaller.

So what spices are we actually seeing here in Mallorca during our dives?

In all honesty, I can’t answer that question, and very few people can. Consulting the most common fish identification sources for divers you will typically be presented with either one of the following two;

  • The Yellowmouth Barracuda Sphyraena Viridensis or
  • The European Barracuda Sphyraena Sphyraena.

In the Mediterranean we know for a fact that we have both spices. And most likely they are both here in our waters around the Balearic Islands as well.

School of barracudas in Pollensa Bay Photo: ©PJFreedive

The problem is that the two are very difficult to tell apart and for years they have been continuously misidentified. Most published reports on catches and sightings are not reliable for that reason.

The operculum bones in colour where the preoperculum is shown in red.

The easiest, or for that sake least difficult, way to tell them apart is that the European Barracuda has scales on the preoperculum, a thin crest shaped bone plate making up one of the four operculum bones that  function as a facial support structure and protective covering for the gills in many fish, while the Yellowmouth Barracuda doesn’t. Now you can understand that if this is the easiest way to tell them apart, we better just settle with the idea that we see Barracuda.

 

Sphyraena Viridensis, Photo: Stefano Guerrieri

So, with that settled let’s get to the details.

Locally used names
Scientific – Sphyraena Sphyraena OR Sphyraena Viridensis
English – Barracuda (European Barracuda OR Yellowmouth Barracuda)
Spanish – Espeton
Catalan – Barracuda

Habitat
Barracudas are epipelagic and are usually found high in the water column, but has been reported as deep as 100m for Sphyraena Sphyraena and 50m for Sphyraena Viridensis. Both Spices inhabit the Eastern Central Atlantic as far as the Azores and the Mediterranean as far as the coast of Lebanon. Most likely only the Yellowmouth go as far south as the Canary Islands, but due to the many years of misidentification there is still a great degree of uncertainty on the overlap of two spices’ habitats.

In Pollensa bay we commonly see Barracudas in schools close Pedro’s wall, Cala Murta and Formentor Island to name a few spots.

Behaviour
Juveniles are commonly seen swimming in schools of dozens up to more than a hundred. It’s common to see them stick around the same area and get a good look at them while out diving. Adults tend to be more sedentary than their younger counterparts.

Though a ferocious killer with nasty teeth they typically don’t pose any threat to humans.

Diet
Mainly smaller pelagic fish but occasionally also crustaceans and Cephalopods.

Commercial use
Barracudas are a popular food fish and a common target spices for artisanal and recreational fishermen and spearfishermen, especially in the Eastern an South Easter Mediterranean. Its also highly appreciated on the dining tables in large parts of Northern Africa. In the western Mediterranean less so.

Minimum catch size in Mallorca for spearfishing
Not regulated

The European Barracuda is the bigger of the two with according to Fishbase.org a common length of 60cm, compared to 40cm for the Yellowmouth.

Reproduction
Spring and summer

IUCN Red List Status
Green – least concern

 

Sources:
Fishbase
IUCN Red List 
Wikipedia