Lumpsuckers turning up on the Guernsey shore

February 4th, 2011 by Richard Lord

On the morning of 3 February 2011, Alan Brehaut found a lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, on the shore at Rocque Poisson, L’Eree Bay, St Pierre du Bois on Guernsey’s west coast.  He found the dead fish 60 feet down from the high water mark.  The fish had a total length of 26 cm and a total weight of 1 lb. 12 oz.

Dead lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, found by Alan Brehaut on the shore at L'Eree on 3 February 2011 (click image to expand - ©Alan Brehaut)

Lumpsuckers occasionally wash-up on the Guernsey shore at this time of year.  In early February 2001 a lumpsucker washed-up at Port Soif, and while ormering off Hommet Paradis in February 2000 Roger Le Poidevin pulled at what appeared to be a piece of seaweed.  Much to his surprise what he grabbed was the tail of a foot-long lumpsucker that was sticking out from under a rock.

On 7 April 2004 while photographing marine life at extreme low water near Lihou island I saw what appeared to be fleshy brown seaweed waving to and fro in the current.  Remembering the story by Roger Le Poidevin it dawned on me that the ‘fleshy brown seaweed’ was in fact the tail of a lumpsucker.

The tail of a male lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, protrudes from a gap in the seaweed at extreme low water to the south of Lihou Island on 7 April 2004 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Lumpsuckers live in cold waters around the rim of the North Atlantic. They are common off Canada, the southern coast of Greenland, and around Iceland, Norway and the British Isles.

They grow to 20 lbs. although the Bailiwick of Guernsey record approaches 12 lbs. Lumpsucker is a descriptive name. Their skin is covered in warty protuberances and their dorsal fin forms a fleshy crest, which is crowned with a row of tubercles. On the underside of the body the pelvic fins join at their base to form a sucking disk, which the lumpsucker uses to attach to a surface and hold position in turbulent water.

A lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, at the Guernsey Aquarium (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Adult male lumpsuckers arrive in Bailiwick waters to breed at the start of the year followed soon after by females. They are at their most beautiful during the breeding season when males develop a crimson hue and females turn bluish-grey. Females lay several batches of eggs at one to two week intervals in amongst forests of kelp. A male suitor fertilisers and aggressively guards the eggs for six to ten weeks until they hatch. The male also fans the eggs with his fins and with jets of water from his mouth. The female takes no part in looking after her broods. Sometimes the female deposits her eggs so close to shore that they are exposed by the tide. Male lumpsuckers often remain with the exposed eggs even though they risk injury or death.

Adult lumpsuckers are seasonal visitors to the shores of the Bailiwick.  After depositing their eggs females return offshore and when the eggs have hatched the males will join them. Research in the 1960s showed that when they move offshore they live in surface waters often over abyssal depths. It is only during the spawning season that they move inshore and to the bottom. Their diet consists largely of non-stinging jellyfish called ctenophores. They feed also on worms, crustaceans and small fishes. Professor Davenport, Founding Director of the Environment Research Institute in Cork, Ireland, has grown lumpsuckers and says their natural diet is of poor quality.

After the adults leave local waters the developing fry remain. In the summer of 2000 Alan Broe Bougourd found thumb-sized lumpsuckers attached to his crab pots. During the summer juveniles can be found in St Peter Port harbour and in seashore rock pools.

A juvenile lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, in the QE II marina on 15 September 2007 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Currents soon disperse them to the open ocean. Males reach maturity at a younger age than females. Most females spawn for the first time when they are five although maturity takes longer for slower growing individuals. Large females can produce almost 200,000 eggs each year. They die of old age after about eight breeding years.

Sharks, whales and seals eat lumpsuckers. Humans have harvested them from the seashore for centuries. In the 19th century lumpsuckers were fished for their meat and it was the male that was preferred. Sir Walter Scott suggested that the people of Edinburgh preferred them to all other fish except turbot. In Newfoundland, Iceland and Denmark the meat is still popular but today the fishery for females and their roe is much more important. A female produces about 1 Kg. of roe each season. The roe, cured in brine and coloured with food dye, produces a cheap caviar.

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