British record Couch’s seabream turn up in Guernsey waters

September 13th, 2011 by Richard Lord

Couch’s seabream, Pagrus pagrus, a member of the family sparidae, first appeared in Guernsey recreational angling records on 1 August 1993 when A.C. Billon caught a 382 gram specimen. Couch’s seabream have been caught in Guernsey waters in nearly every year since then.

Couch's or common seabream, Pagrus pagrus (click image to expand- ©RLLord)

Life-long angler and former Guernsey Press angling columnist Len Le Page reported in September 2002 that “Couch’s seabream seem to be firmly established in Guernsey waters.” By then, Douglas Herdson, of the Marine Fish information Service in Plymouth, believed this species was breeding in Cornish waters.

Couch’s seabream reach their northern limit in the English Channel and are found as far south as Angola. They are common in the Mediterranean and around the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira. They live also in the western Atlantic off the US coast from the Carolinas to Texas, and off the South American coast from Venezuela to Argentina.

In the USA they are called ‘red porgy‘ and internationally they are known as ‘common seabream’. But the British name them after Dr. Jonathan Couch of Polperro, Cornwall. He was the first to describe this fish from British waters.

He wrote that one “was taken on the 8th of November 1842, with a baited hook, at a rocky ledge termed the Edges, at a distance of three miles south of Polperro, Cornwall. Its weight was six pounds. It appears to be scarcely known to naturalists although described by Cuvier as a native of the Mediterranean.”

Jeremy Rowett Johns of the Polperro Heritage Press wrote “Dr. Couch‘s contribution to scientific knowledge in the 19th century was enormous. Besides being a local doctor and apothecary he was a zoologist, ichthyologist, botanist, archaeologist and classical scholar. His major work was ‘The History of the Fishes of the British Islands‘ which he wrote in four volumes between 1862 and 1865.”

The maximum size of Guernsey Couch’s seabream catches has steadily increased.  In 1996 an angler caught the first one in Guernsey waters over 2 lbs.  By 1997 the angling record exceeded 3 lbs. and by 2002 it had breached 4 lbs.  In 2004 Guernsey commercial fishermen were catching Couch’s seabream over 5 lbs.

In some years they have been common.  On January 29, 2001 after a night’s fishing Guernsey commercial fisherman David Markwick landed 16 to fish monger E.Lucas in the St Peter Port Town Market. “I’ve been to the Mediterranean,” he said with a smile after delivering them.

Ray Fallaize caught a British angling record Couch’s seabream a few miles to the west of Grand Rocque on Guernsey’s west coast on 28 April 2007.  His fish of 6 lbs. 9 oz. and 8 drams ( 2991 grams) was the first recorded Couch’s seabream in British waters to exceed the weight of Dr. Jonathan Couch’s 1842 specimen.

Ray Fallaize with the British angling record Couch's seabream, Pagrus pagrus, caught a few miles off Guernsey's west coast on 28 April 2007 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

In the last two decades Couch’s seabream has been more abundant in Guernsey waters than the red seabream, Pagellus bogaraveo, which was abundant for a few years up to 1984 when it disappeared from local waters.  Red seabream have recently begun to reappear in local catches.

The two species can be confused although they are quite different when seen together.  The red seabream usually has a black blotch at the origin of the lateral line (although sometimes this can be missing), an orange hue to its skin, and a bright orange mouth.

Couch’s seabream has metallic pink skin fading to silver on the belly and lacks the orange mouth. The couch’s pink tail is also tipped with white. There are other reddish-pink seabreams but they are very rarely caught in Guernsey waters.

Breams in the family sparidae are hermaphrodites.  The red seabream begins life as a male, but Couch’s seabream begins life as a female, and changes to a male with increasing size.

In the western Atlantic population some females reach maturity in their second year and most are mature by the age of four but a study of a Mediterranean population showed that only 50% were mature by the age of four and some individuals were still females at 6 ½ years of age. The weight of a fish is the best indicator of fecundity. A female of less than one pound produces about 50,000 eggs but a four-pound fish can produce almost 1/2 million.  Depending on water temperature hatching occurs less than 2 days after fertilisation.

In the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean stock, Couch’s seabream readily hybridises with the gilt-head seabream, Sparus aurata.

According to Dr. Charles Manooch who studied the species for his Ph.D., “fertilised eggs and larvae are probably transported for relatively long distances.”  The adults, which do not occur in schools, tend not to travel far. From tagging studies the average distance adults moved over two years was less than six kilometres.

Couch’s seabream grow slowly and live at least 18 years but most are caught before they reach old age. The largest recorded was 7.7 KGs and 91 cm long.

Richard Le Prevost holding the 4205 gram Couch's seabream, Pagrus pagrus, caught several miles off Guernsey's west coast on 9 September 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Ray Fallaize British angling record was superseded in weight by Richard Le Prevost’s 9 lbs. 4 oz. 5 dram (4205 grams) Couch’s seabream caught on 9 September 2011 several miles off the west coast of Guernsey.

This fish is currently in the process of being approved as a new British angling record.  The fish was caught in the same location as Ray Fallaize’s 2007 record fish.

Richard Le Prevost's 4205 gram Couch's seabream, Pagrus pagrus, which had a total length of 650 mm, a fork length of 566 mm, and a standard length of 501 mm (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Dr. Manooch, who established that the western Atlantic and eastern Atlantic populations belong to the same species, wrote that they are aggressive, opportunistic bottom feeders. “They seize food or bait immediately it is presented to them.” Their strong molars at the back of the jaw can crush sea urchins, crabs, bivalves and snails. They also consume small fish.

They are considered a hardy species because they can survive sudden pressure and water temperature changes but they are vulnerable to over-fishing. The US fishery suffered a stock collapse with a 97 percent decline in population and was closed in 1999.

Couch’s seabream is one of the most popular breams in the Mediterranean. Several fish farms grow it commercially but there have been difficulties maintaining proper skin colour in cultured fish.

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Seabream can be spelled sea-bream or sea bream.  I have followed the United Nations FAO convention of combining the two words into one.

 

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