Gray Triggerfish

Gray Triggerfish, Balistes capriscus

The Gray Triggerfish, Balistes capriscus, whose common Spanish name is pejepuerco blanco, is a species in the Triggerfish or Balistidae Family, known collectively as cochitos in Mexico. Globally, there are only seven species in the genus Balistes, three of which are found in Mexican waters, two in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific.

The Gray Triggerfish have deep, robust, compressed, and oblong bodies with a depth that is 53 to 57% of standard length. They have a uniformly drab color being pale gray, greenish-gray or yellowish-brown. They have three broad faint dark bars on their body and a pale streak on their chin. The upper margin of their eyes is blue. They have blue spots and lines on their dorsal fin and upper body and white dots and irregular lines on their lower body. Their anal fin and second dorsal fin have a marbled appearance. They have the ability to change colors to match their surroundings. Juveniles have more prominent colors than adults. They have small eyes that are set well back on top of their head, a small beak-like terminal mouth with fleshy lips, and eight strong incisor-like sharp teeth used for crushing hard shell prey. Their anal fin lacks spines and has 23 to 26 rays. Their caudal fin is doubly concave with mature fish having elongated outer rays. Their first dorsal fin has three spines; the first spine is very elongated and can be locked erect. Their second dorsal fin has 26 to 29 rays and is very similar in shape to the anal fin directly below. They have small rounded pectoral fins. They are covered with thick leathery skin and large scales on their head and first half of their body and small smooth scales on the rear of their body.

The Gray Triggerfish are a shallow water and off-shore demersal species found over hard bottoms on reefs and rocky areas and in lagoons and bays at depths up to 350 feet. They reach a maximum length of 60 cm (24 inches) and weigh up to 6.2 kg (13.6 pounds). They are found either as solitary individuals or in small groups. Juveniles are found on the surface within Sargassum weeds. They feed on benthic invertebrates including crabs, molluscs, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, shrimp, and starfish. Adults are preyed upon by amberjacks, groupers, and sharks and juveniles are preyed upon by dorados, marlins, sailfish, and tuna. Reproduction is oviparous and occurs in harems of one male and up to six females. Males are sexually dimorphic and larger than females; they become dark in color and highly territorial during breeding season. Males prepare up to a dozen nests in hollows blown out of sandy seabed and then patrol the area, driving unwanted fish away. Each female can release up to 1.1 million eggs in the nests up to 24 times per year and these eggs are then fertilized by the males. The eggs are protected by both parents and will hatch within 50 hours. The larvae migrate toward the surface and school within floating Sargassum weed feeding on algae, barnacles, hydroids, and polychaete worms. At four to seven months they settle out on the bottom. They have a lifespan of up to sixteen years.

The Gray Triggerfish are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in  all Mexican waters of the Atlantic.

The Gray Triggerfish is an easy fish to identify and is not typically confused with any other species, with the possible exception of the Ocean Triggerfish, Canthidermis sufflamen (caudal fin lobes not elongated; black spot at base of pectoral fins) and the Queen Triggerfish, Balistes vetula (highly colored with two blue stripes across face). They are very similar to the Finescale Triggerfish, Balistes polylepis, which is found only in the Pacific Ocean.

The Gray Triggerfish are important commercially and recreationally. They are taken commercially by hook and line, bottom trawls, and traps. They are a strong foe for recreational anglers on light tackle and might be the strongest fish in the ocean pound per pound. They are notorious bait stealers and difficult to hook; they are normally caught on squid or cut bait. They are deemed an excellent food fish and normally marketed fresh, smoked or dried / salted, however, there are reports that they contain Cigua Toxin. They are a popular target of cattle boats off the southeastern United States. From a conservation perspective they are currently considered Vulnerable due to overfishing with steady declines in catch levels since 1990 and reports that they are now extinct in some parts of their historical range. In the United States they are protected by size limits, daily bag limits, and seasonal closures, however, they are unprotected throughout the rest of their range. They can be found in public aquariums where they are considered a trophy show fish.

Gray Triggerfish, Balistes capriscus. Fish caught from coastal waters off Islamorada, Florida, April 2012. Length: 43 cm (17 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Gray Triggerfish, Balistes capriscus. Fish caught in the Florida Middle Grounds, March 2016. Length: 58 cm (23 inches). Weight 2.7 kg (6.0 pounds). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.