“Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail, "There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail!”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Along the Texas coast, kingfish of the Menticirrhus genus are colloquially known as whiting. The name “kingfish” is also used for the king mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla, which is unrelated to any of the whiting. Whiting are members of the drum family and are related to spotted sea trout, Atlantic croaker, redfish, black drum, and others. However, since whiting lack a swim bladder, they don’t make the typical drumming sounds like other members of the drum family, though they can vocalize a bit by grinding their pharyngeal teeth.
There are three species of whiting in Texas waters: the Gulf kingfish, Menticirrhus littoralis, the southern kingfish, Menticirrhus americanus, and the northern kingfish, Menticirrhus saxatilis. The genus name, Menticirrhus, is from the Latin, mentum, meaning beard or chin, and cirrus, meaning curly. Freshly caught whiting are relatively easy to tell apart by their coloration and morphological characteristics.
The Gulf kingfish is the largest of the three species, though there’s not a huge variation in size between them. Its body is silvery and lacks any vertical stripes or blotches on the sides, like the other two. It does have a very noticeable black splotch at the tip top of the tail, though. The scales on its breast are also much smaller than the southern or northern species. They commonly reach a foot in length and typically weigh less than a pound. The southern kingfish is the most common of the three species. It has a darker body than the Gulf kingfish, and can have indistinct vertical stripes on its silvery gray sides, which serve as camouflage in the sandy surf. Southerns can tolerate greater salinity and temperature ranges than northern and gulf kingfish. They commonly reach 6-10 inches and half a pound. The northern kingfish is the least locally common of the three species. Northerns have dark vertical bars on their silvery brown sides. The first bars form two distinct V-shapes. There is also a dark horizontal stripe behind the pectoral fins. In addition to coloration differences, the northern kingfish has a noticeably long spine in the first dorsal fin; the southern and the Gulf kingfishes have a much shorter spine. They commonly reach about a foot in length and less than a pound. All whiting are flattened on their undersides, with a sort of triangular body composition. They have a downward-pointing mouth and a single rigid barbel under the chin, with a pore at the tip. As adults, their tail fin is S-shaped. They can all live 4-6 years, but typically on reach 2-3 years.
All three species are found along the Gulf Coast and up the eastern coast all the way to the Chesapeake Bay area. Gulf kingfish can be found as far south as southern Brazil. The southern kingfish’s range extends southward along the east coast of South America to Argentina. Northern kingfish are most common from Chesapeake Bay to New York. All three prefer sandy or muddy bottoms in relatively shallow water (less than 30 feet), are common off beaches and near passes and inlets, and are abundant in surf zones. The crashing waves in high action areas dislodge and suspend crabs and other small crustaceans that whiting feed on. Gulf kingfish are particularly fond of these areas, while northern and southern kingfish often seek out slightly deeper waters. Juveniles tolerate low salinity levels and are often found in estuaries, while adults are more common in bays with higher salinity. However, southern kingfish are a euryhaline species, meaning that they can thrive in a very wide range of water salinity, from bayous and marshes to the open Gulf. As a demersal fish, whiting seek out areas with lots of benthic infauna, creatures that are directly tied to the substrate in which they live, such as polychaetes, mollusks, amphipods, sea lice, etc. These are an important food source for kingfish. Whiting forage on the bottom in small schools, generally of the same species. They use their chin barbel to detect prey along the sea floor and feed on a variety of invertebrates, with a preference for small crustaceans, as well as small fish.
Offshore spawning ranges from April through October, depending on the region. Older fish tend to spawn first. Whiting are batch spawners and spawn about every seven days through the spawning season. The eggs float, and hatch within 46 to 50 hours. Larvae enter nearshore waters and utilize estuaries and beaches as nursery grounds. By 3/4-1 inch in length, the young already show most of the characteristics of adult fish. They reach 4-6 inches in length by their first winter. Northern kingfish grow the quickest; fish spawned in late May or early June can reach over 11 inches by October. The major period of growth is from mid-summer to late fall, with little or no growth occurring in the winter. They reach sexual maturity around 1 year of age, with males reaching maturity faster, and at a smaller size, than females.
Whiting are a common and popular fish for anglers fishing from piers and beaches. Though not large, kingfish are considered to be excellent table fare, with firm, mild-flavored white flesh. There is not a significant commercial fishery for kingfish. However, significant numbers are caught as bycatch in shrimp trawls. Larger bycatch specimens are typically kept, as their tasty flesh can bring a fair price.
The prevalence of kingfish in shallow coastal waters make these species excellent indicators of the health of this ecosystem. Poor water quality from increased nutrient runoff and sewage discharges can cause oxygen depletion in whiting habitat. Dredging offshore sand bars eliminates high-energy habitat, preferred especially by the Gulf kingfish, and impacts the benthic infauna that all three species feed on. Additionally, during dredging activities, sediment-bound chemical toxins become suspended in the water column, and are subsequently “inhaled” by whiting and other near-shore fish. Unfortunately, not every toxin that accumulates in these frequently targeted fish can be cooked out.
Where I learned about whiting, and you can too!
Texas Marine Species
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission
University of Southern Mississippi
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
The Angler Within
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife
The Florida Times-Union