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What is a Mojarra Fish?

T. E. Snow
T. E. Snow

A mojarra is a type of small fish that lives predominantly in tropical waters throughout the Caribbean and off the Atlantic coast of parts of Central and South America. The name mojarra is actually a family name, and can be interchangeable with more official family name Gerridae. Over 50 species of fish can be included in the family. All are members of the scientific class Actinopterygii and the order Perciformes. There are some differences between species, but in general all included fish are relatively small with shimmering silver scales; they usually have deeply forked tails and protruding mouths that they use to uncover food buried on the sea floor. They’re often eaten by humans, particularly the larger varieties, though they are also very commonly used as live bait in fishing. How the fish are identified and how they look can vary depending on species and precise location.

Physical Characteristics

Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

These fish are almost always silvery in color with striped spots that sometimes look like painted bars. They typically have a deeply forked tail and a dorsal fin that has a pronounced spike and extends all the way down to the back. Members of the family have 24 vertebrae, and a noticeably pointed “snout,” known more formally as a “protractile mouth”; it it longer on the bottom than the top, which enables the fist to sift through the sand at the bottom of shallow sea areas in order to find food. The fish typically feed on on small invertebrates like worms and plant matter.

Most are small fish, though there can be some variety between species. In general their maximum length is about 1.15 feet (about 35 cm), though males can reach up to 1.32 feet (about 40 cm).

Where They Live

Members of this fish family live predominantly in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean, including the islands of the Bahamas, the Caymans, and Cuba, and much of Central and South America including Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast also see many species. They tend to be called different things in different places, and may occur in different varieties in different types of water. Common names for mojarra in English include blinch, broad shad, sea patwa, and silver perch. Tilapia are sometimes also included, but this isn’t technically correct; the tilapia is a member of a different fish family, even though it shares many of the same physical characteristics.

Mojarra are most commonly found in the ocean, but they sometimes also inhabit brackish water, which is water that is a mixture of both fresh and salt water. Marches and inland streams are good examples of brackish habitats, and these places are often the homes of younger fish or smaller varieties.

Since fish in this family eat primarily worms and kelp growing on the sea floor, they are often found swimming near the bottom of the water. They often prefer naturally shallow island waters for this reasons, but they have been found at depths of up to about 229 feet (70 meters).

Geographical Variations and Identification

It’s often the case that different species and variations live more commonly in one place than another, and local farmers and fishermen often have their own ways of classifying and identifying them. The coasts of Mexico have some of the widest varieties of this fish family, including the dark spot, golden, and Pacific flagfin. Fish of the Gerridae family in the Mexican region tend to have large rough scales that cover their bodies, while others have slender bodies that are lacking the dark bars on the side more typical of fish found elsewhere. Sometimes the best way to classify the fish is to study characteristics other than their outside appearance, including their skeletal structure and arrangement of teeth and fins.

Human Uses

The biggest uses for these fish are as a food and as a bait. The larger varieties are often sold for human consumption, and can be baked, grilled, or fried; they tend to have a delicate flavor that isn’t overwhelmingly “fishy.” They are also a prized food group for a number of larger fish, including sharks, and this makes them valuable as a live bait. Fishermen will hook smaller varieties while they are still alive, and will use them to lure larger fish. This is a particularly popular tactic in sport fishing.

Is Mojarra Healthy?

Eating fish can be a healthy part of your diet. The main concern with eating mojarra, as with most fish, is the potential for the flesh to contain toxic levels of mercury. How safe the mojarra you are considering eating is depends partly on where it was caught. Fish from areas where the water is known to have high levels of mercury contamination may not be safe to consume. Because some mojarra are bottom-feeders, and some varieties eat trash, the risk of contamination may be higher than with some other types of fish. Young children and pregnant people should be extra cautious about consuming seafood.

How Do You Cook Mojarra?

Mojarra frita is probably the most famous preparation of mojarra. This simple Mexican recipe involves frying the whole fish in a deep skillet. Flavorings, such as garlic and lime, may be added to the oil. For a lower-fat preparation, you may also steam the fish.

Can I Catch Mojarra Fish?

Because mojarra fish travel in large schools they are easy to catch with a seine or cast net. The species are not regulated, so you can catch them by using a net or squid-tipped sabiki rig. A rod and reel with a size-6 hook and bobber may be effective for some types of mojarra. Squid, grasshopper and scud are good types of bait to use. However, shrimp with the shell removed is the best bait. Worms and small minnows may also work.

What Kind of Fish Is Mojarra? Are There Different Types?

Because mojarra refers to a family of fish there are a variety of different types.

Irish Mojarra

The Irish mojarra is often called the Irish Pompano. It has an odd-looking mouth that looks like a mouth sticking out of another mouth. The Irish mojarra's deep body and shiny silver flesh give it a striking appearance. It can grow to be as large as nine inches, making it a good variety for human consumption.

Silver Jenny Mojarra

The Silver Jenny mojarra has its origins in the western Atlantic Ocean and can be found from Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico. This variety has silver scales and a mouth that protrudes downward when extended. It averages six to nine inches in length and eats plankton and other types of water bacteria. Silver Jenny fish are usually found in schools over mangrove estuaries, mud bottoms and other vegetated areas.

Striped Mojarra

The Striped mojarra has a silvery body with a greenish back that is shaped like a rhombus. Its dorsal fins are dark, while the other fins are dusky. The fish has an anal fin with three spines and eight or nine rays. The caudal fin is forked, while the dorsal fin is elevated and has nine spines and 10 rays. The pectoral fins have 16 or 17 rays. The pelvic fins have a single strong, thick spine and the gill covers are serrated.

It lives mostly in shallow waters, mangrove-rich creeks and lagoons with low salinity. They are equally likely to be found in salt, fresh or brackish water that is up to 100 feet deep. They live and feed on or near the bottom of the ocean.

Because it travels in large schools, the Striped mojarra makes a good baitfish. They are usually found in inlets or tidal pools. They can be particularly good snook bait. These fish can reach up to 16" and usually weigh one to two pounds. The Striped mojarra is sometimes confused with the Maracaibo mojarra or the Black Axillary mojarra. You can distinguish the Maracaibo mojarra by its second anal spine, which extends beyond the tail base. The Black Axillary mojarra is only found in the Pacific Ocean. They may also be called Patao, Sand Perch, Sand Brim, Goat, Goatfish or Silverbelly.

The Striped mojarra eats mostly detritus, crustaceans, micro-bivalves and aquatic insects, but it is particularly fond of shrimp. In Mexico, it is referred to as mojarra rayada and it is considered one of the most important types of fish in the Colombian Caribbean. The females can lay 90,000 to 100,000 eggs in a single year.

Yellowfin Mojarra

The Yellowfin mojarra can be found from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and into Caribbean coastal waters and reefs. These fish feed on invertebrates and insects. They have deep bodies and large, expandable mouths. The seven faint bars on the side are the most distinguishing characteristic of the Yellowfin. Juveniles travel in large schools, but adults usually travel alone or in small groups.

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