Milkfish, Chanos chanos

The Milkfish, Chanos chanos, whose common Spanish name is sabalote, is the sole global member of the Milkfish or Chanidae Family, known as sabalote in Mexico. This species is the only species in the genus Chanos and is found in Mexican waters of the Pacific.

The Milkfish have elongated, fusiform, moderately compressed, and streamlined bodies. They are olive-green to blue dorsally and transition to silvery ventrally and on their sides. Their anal, caudal, and dorsal fins are yellowish with dark margins. They have a pointed head with large eyes and a small terminal mouth without teeth. Their eyes are covered with an adipose film and they have a small barbel on the tip of their lower jaw. Their anal fin is set well back on the body and has two spines and 8 to 10 rays; the caudal fin is large and deeply forked; the single dorsal fin has two spines and 13 to 17 rays; and, the pectoral and pelvic fins are small and set well back and low on the body. They have numerous fine gill rakers. Their lateral line is straight with a slight upturn near the head. They are covered with small smooth scales.

The Milkfish are a coastal pelagic schooling species found in large schools from the surface to depths of 20 meters (65 feet). Males reach a maximum length of 1.80 meters (5 feet 11 inches) and 14 kg (31 pounds) in weight; females are smaller and reach a maximum length of 1.24 meters (4 feet 1 inches). They require water temperatures greater than 20oC (68oF). Spawning occurs in coastal waters and smaller fish reside around sandy beaches very close to shore; larger adults are found in deeper waters on the continental shelf. They consume a wide variety of materials including microbial mats, detritus, epiphytes, and zooplankton. They require five years to reach sexual maturity. They spawn year-round with each female releasing between three and four million eggs per annum. Their eggs and larvae are pelagic. They settle out and mature in estuarine areas and adults move to marine environments. They have low resiliency and long reproductive times. Their lifespan reaches up to fourteen years.

In Mexican waters the Milkfish are found in all coastal waters of the Pacific with the exception that they are absent from the northern two-thirds of the Sea of Cortez.

The Milkfish is very similar to the Eastern Pacific Bonefish, Albula esuncula (small mouth not extending to eyes; pelvic fins originating at rear of dorsal fin), the Machete, Elops affinis (long mouth; large eyes; pelvic fins originating before dorsal fin), and the Pacific Shafted Bonefish, Albula pacifica (last dorsal fin ray is prolonged and filamentous; last anal fin ray is long; dorsal fin ray longer than anal fin ray).

The Milkfish have been farmed extensively in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan for the last 400 to 600 years and are currently now also farmed in Hawaii. They are an important commercial fish with most fish being farmed. They are a highly valued food fish in Southeast Asia but contain numerous bones. They are currently produced at levels of 750,000 tons per annum and valued at $800 million. They are grown in ponds, pens, and cages irrigated with oceanic water. They are the focus of major current on-going research efforts to improve farming systems, breeding, and fry production with new methodology being developed to produce fry in hatcheries. The industry is plagued with oversupply and increasing costs due to new governmental regulations (food quality and safety issues) and restrictions moving efforts to higher value products such as a new genetically developed Golden Milkfish. The Milkfish are exported and can be found in all Asian markets in the United States being sold fresh, whole, deboned, frozen, and processed. They are used on a limited basis as live bait to target tuna. From a conservation perspective, they are plentiful and abundant. Their populations have not been assessed but are believed to be increasing globally. Members of the Chanidae Family date to the Cretaceous Period, 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago.

Milkfsh, Chanos chanos. Fish caught from shore at Los Barriles, Baja California Sur, January 2017. Length: 51 cm (20 inches). Catch and photo courtesy of Brad Murakami, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.

Milkfsh, Chanos chanos. Underwater photo taken in coastal waters off Kailua-Kona, HI, December 2015. Length: 64 cm (25 inches). Photo courtesy of Bob Hillis, Ivins, UT.

Milkfsh, Chanos chanos. Fish provided by the commercial fishermen in the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, September 2009. Length: 76 cm (30 inches).