Bonefish, Albula vulpes

The Bonefish, Albula vulpes, whose common Spanish name is macabí, is a species in the Bonefish or Albulidae Family, known collectively as macabi in Mexico. Globally, there are only six species in the genus Albula, four of which are found in Mexican waters, one in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific.

The Bonefish are relatively small fish with long, slender, round, and slightly compressed bodies. They are greenish-blue dorsally and transition to silvery ventrally with dark longitudinal streaks on their sides. Their caudal and dorsal fins have dusky margins. Juveniles have a series of nine dark crossbands on their back. Their dorsal profile is more convex than the ventral profile. Their fins have no spines. Their anal fin has a short base and 8 or 9 rays and is set well behind the dorsal fin. Their caudal fin is deeply forked with the upper lobe slightly larger than the lower lobe. Their dorsal fin is found mid-body; it has a short base with 17 or 18 rays and is triangularly-shaped and significantly elevated. Their pectoral fins are low on the body and their pelvic fins are on the abdomen well behind the pectoral fins. Their head is conical with a small, short, and inferior mouth that does not reach the eyes and a pointed overhanging snout that is equipped with small granular teeth set in bands designed for grinding prey. They have 16 to 18 gill rakers. Their lateral line is straight and they are covered with modest-sized and smooth scales.

The Bonefish are found in the tropical and subtropical northwest Atlantic within mangroves, seagrasses, and other shallow coastal habitats. They are found at depths up to 165 feet and in waters with temperatures below 37oC (99oF). They reach a maximum length of 77 cm (31 inches) and weigh up to 6.4 kg (14 pounds). They are a schooling species found in groups consisting of up to 100 individuals. They can also be found alone or in pairs. They enter tidal flats on the incoming tide and feed predominantly on benthic invertebrates (bivalves and crabs) and small fish. They are preyed upon by various barracudas and sharks. They rely on speed to avoid predation and are ever vigilant making them difficult to catch by recreational anglers. They spend most of their time in the same areas but are known to migrate up to 140 miles to offshore waters for spawning. Sexual maturity is reached within two years. Eggs and larvae are pelagic with the larval stage being leptocephalic (ribbon-like) and twice as long as the resulting juveniles. They have a lifespan of up to 20 years.

In Mexican waters the Bonefish are found in all waters of the Atlantic.

The Bonefish are currently the subject of significant scientific interest. Historically they were divided into two species, one from the Atlantic and one from the Pacific. With new molecular genetic information it is now believed that there are nine genetically distinct species that are morphologically indistinguishable. Until this work is completed I will consider the fish that resides in the Atlantic to be Albula Vulpes. Due to its distinguishing characteristics this fish cannot easily be confused with any other fish from the Atlantic.

The Bonefish are fairly rare but heavily targeted by recreational fishermen due to their elusiveness and powerful swimming abilities. They are also the focus of subsistence and artisanal fishermen who use handlines, gill nets, and seine nets. They are not deemed a valuable food fish due to the numerous fine bones omnipresent in their flesh and the presence of Cigua toxin. They are used on a limited basis as live bait targeting large pelagic and reef fish such as marlins and groupers. From a conservation perspective they are currently listed as Near Threatened. In the Florida Keys and around the Yucatan Peninsula they are considered Vulnerable. In these areas, population declines as high as 90% have been reported in the last 50 years. These declines are attributed to loss of habitat with declines in mangroves, seagrass areas, and coral reefs caused by human influence in coastal waters. They have high site fidelity and therefore are especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation. They are not well protected and current regulations are poorly enforced.

Bonefish, Albula vulpes. Fish caught from coastal waters off Caye Caulker, Belize, June 2013. Length: 30 cm (12 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of Kenneth Tse, Toronto, Canada.