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Tampa Bay Estuary Program


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Sheepshead Featured Creature Archive from Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Archosargus probatocephalus

This fish gets its name because its head and impressive teeth resemble that of a sheep. The sheepshead is also called the convict fish for good reason. The 5 to 8 dark bars on the side of the body, over a gray background, make you think they are wearing prison stripes.

Sheepshead have an oval-shaped body, with a blunt snout and a small, nearly horizontal mouth. It is very tasty, although its heavy scales and strong fin spines make it difficult to clean and fillet. Although it reaches a maximum size of about 29 inches and 22 pounds, adult sheepshead are most commonly no more than 16 inches and 5 pounds. They live a surprisingly long time, 15 to 20 years.

Sheepshead eat small crabs, fish and occasional plant material. Large juveniles and adults prey on blue crabs, oysters, clams, and crustaceans. The sheepshead's most distinctive feature is its teeth. They are heavy, strong and often used to crush heavily armored and shelled prey and to scrape barnacles from rocks and pilings. In Tampa Bay, sheepshead have developed a particular fondness for Asian green mussels, an invasive mussel first found in the bay in 1999 and have been observed gnawing them off dock pilings.

Sheepshead spawn primarily in the early spring. They migrate to offshore waters to spawn, later returning to nearshore waters and estuaries. Females can produce from 1,100 to 250,000 eggs per spawning. Little is known about sheepshead spawning behavior.

The sheepshead can be found inshore around rock pilings, jetties, mangrove roots, and piers as well as in tidal creeks and over seagrass beds. According to Timothy MacDonald, Associate Research Scientist from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, sheepshead are most abundant in lower Tampa Bay, specifically, Boca Ciega Bay, Cockroach Bay and Terra Ceia Bay. They travel in schools, but can also be found individually around structures. To date the sheepshead population has remained stable with no over-fishing reported.

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