Atlantic croaker is a member of the drum family and closely related to red and black drum, sea trout and weakfish. While all the drums are able to make a drumming/croaking sound, Atlantic croakers are among the loudest of the drums. They range from Massachusetts south along the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. These bottom-dwelling croakers prefer shallow estuaries and bays with sandy or muddy bottoms. They stay there through the spring and summer, and then breed offshore in the fall.
The Atlantic croaker is a silvery fish that often has a pinkish hue when inshore or golden hue during spawn. The sides may have dark oblique wavy lines. They have inferior mouth with 3 to 5 pairs of chin whiskers. The dorsal fin is deeply notched tail slightly pointed. Most specimens are around 12 inches or so, although larger fish reach18-20 inches with a trophy being 24 inches or more.
Prolific fish, croakers have long spawning season that runs from fall to early spring. They spawn in near-shore ocean waters. After hatching, and around ¼ inch in size they make their way to the estuarine habitats, where the shallow marshes are utilized as their nursery area. As they mature they move from the shallows deeper estuary areas. They become sexually mature between age one and two. Atlantic croakers may live upwards of eight years.
Atlantic croakers are bottom feeders where they prey on worms, crustaceans, mollusks, and small fish.
Atlantic Croaker in Texas
Atlantic croaker are about 12 inches (30 cm) long and weigh 1/2 to 2 pounds (226 g to 0.9 kg) on average. Its distinguishing characteristics include three to five pairs of small barbels or "whiskers" on their chins to help them feel for food on the sea floor; a lateral line that extends to the tip of its caudal (tail) fin; inferior mouth (located to the bottom of the head facing the ground), and brown vertical stripes on its sides. Adults are silver with a pinkish cast, while young are silvery and iridescent. Older fish are brassy in color with vertical brown streaks formed by spots that are on their scales.
The Atlantic croaker is a very important commercial fish. Millions of pounds are caught and sold every year in the United States and exported to other countries. The annual catch of croaker has declined in the past few years, probably due to over fishing. The best times for fishing for Atlantic croaker are from summer into the fall. They are easily caught on bait (dead shrimp) when fishing on the bottom. Small Atlantic croaker are used as a bait fish to catch other fish, especially spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosis) and crabs.
Atlantic croaker "croak" by vibrating their swim bladders with special muscles as part of their spawning ritual. A swim bladder is a pocket full of air inside the fish that helps keep it afloat and facing upright. This behavior attracts females. Along the Gulf Coast, they reach sexual maturity at about one year old. This varies in other areas. Spawning season is in the fall, with a peak between August and October. During spawning season, females will release between 100,000 and 2 million eggs, each about 0.35 mm in diameter. After hatching, the larvae (immature stage) drift toward land. They are abundant on soft bottoms, such as mud, where there are large amounts of detritus for them to feed on. The Atlantic croaker's diet includes shrimp, crabs, and detritus (dead and decomposing plant and animal matter).
Atlantic croaker can live up to eight years. Their predators include striped bass, shark, spotted seatrout, other croakers, and humans. Croaker that live in the northern part of their range mature later and live longer than those in the southern part of their range. Because of predation, more than 95% of the Atlantic croaker population dies every year. Atlantic croaker should not be eaten raw because they may pass trematodes (parasites) to humans. The croaker is closely related to spotted seatrout and red drum.