Gurnard are a small predatory demersal fish, found around most of the British Isles. They are a distinctive looking fish, with a number of unique features. They have a large head which is armoured and spines around the body to defend themselves. They have feelers under the head which they use to ‘walk’ along the seabed and large pectoral fins which they use to ‘fly’ through the sea. This method of swimming has led to gurnard being called sea robins throughout much of the rest of the world. An alternative name is feeler fish due to the sensory organs they walk on. The gurnard also has a muscle which it can drum against its swim bladder to make a croaking or grunting noise. Gurnard are thought to communicate with each other in this way. Often they will make the noise when they have been caught, leading to another alternative name of croaker.
There are over a hundred different species of gurnard across the world. Three species have a wide distribution across the UK and are profiled in detail below. There are several other species which are much less common in the waters around the British Isles and are only briefly mentioned below.
All gurnards have a tapering cylindrical body and large triangular dorsal fin and long second dorsal and anal fins. Gurnard have a high broad head which is hard as the skull is made of solid bony plates. Tentacle-like feeler appendages are located under the head which contains sensory organs to allow the gurnard to locate food (these are in fact adapted pelvic fins). Four spines project down from the pectoral fins and some specimens can have other smaller spines coming from the head. The pectoral fins are large, and form fan-like ‘wings.’ The tail is small and triangular and is only very slightly forked. In tropical countries some gurnard species have spines which can deliver venom, but none of the gurnard species found in the waters around the British Isles are venomous.
- Scientific name: Chelidonichthys lucerna
- Also known as: Yellow Gurnard or Tubfish
- UK shore caught record: 12lb 3oz. UK minimum size: 11ins/28cm.
The biggest of the gurnard species, the tub gurnard can grow to around twelve pounds at its maximum size. However, the vast majority are much smaller than this, with a fish of two or three pounds being a good shore catch. They are also the most colourful of the species. Sometimes they are (as the alternative name suggests) a yellowy colour but can also be pink, orange and even bright red (confusing people into thinking they have caught a red gurnard). The underside is white or cream. This species has the biggest pectoral fin ‘wings’ and they are streaked with blue with a blue fringe, and it is the presence of this colour on the pectoral fins which is the easiest way of identifying this species.
- Scientific name: Chelidonichthys cuculus
- UK shore caught record: 2lb 10oz.
- UK minimum size: 9ins/23cm
Red gurnard are smaller than the tub, with a one pound fish being a decent catch from the shore, and a one and a half pound fish approaching specimen status. The colour is generally a reddish, although in some fish it can be more of a brown colour. As discussed above this can lead to species confusion with the tub gurnard, as sometimes a tub gurnard can be redder than a red gurnard! The pectoral fins are therefore the best way of identifying this species – if the blue fringe is present on these fins it is a tub gurnard, if no blue is present then it is a red gurnard.
- Scientific name: Eutrigla gurnardus.
- UK shore caught record: 1lb 10oz.
- UK minimum size: 9ins/23cm.
The grey gurnard are the smallest of the three main gurnard species. It can grow to almost three pounds in weight, but shore caught are usually under a pound. Unsurprisingly, the grey gurnard is usually a dark greyish colour on the back and flanks, although this can sometimes be nearer to black. This fades to a pale underbelly. The grey gurnard’s lateral line is made up of unusual bony, thorny scales, and its pectoral fins/wings are the smallest of the three main species.
Other Species of Gurnard
There are three other species of gurnard found in UK waters: the long-finned gurnard (Chelidonichthys obscurus), the piper gurnard (Trigla lyra) and the streaked gurnard (Triglopourus lastoviza). The long-finned gurnard is a warm water fish that usually stays clear of Britain’s cold waters, only occasionally being found around the south in the English Channel, and the piper gurnard is a deep water fish that lives in water around one hundred metres deep. The streaked gurnard is the most common of these additional species, but even this is seldom caught by British sea anglers as it also prefers warmer waters and only comes into southern British waters in the summer.
Seasons, Distribution, Habitat and Feeding
Tub and grey gurnard are found throughout the UK in decent numbers. The red gurnard is generally found in the south of the British Isles, especially in the English Channel. Gurnard move out into deeper water in the winter and generally come into shallower inshore waters in the warmer summer months. Spawning also takes place in the summer while the fish are in inshore waters. Gurnard will feed where there are offshore sandbanks or swim along sandy coastlines looking for gullies or features where sources of food have gathered. Gurnard will feed over mixed ground if food sources are present there, and can also be found in clean patches of ground among rocky ground. All gurnard are predatory and will hunt sprats, sandeels and small mackerel and herring. They will also opportunistically feed on marine worms and crustaceans and scavenge on dead fish found on the seabed.
Changing Reputation of Gurnard as a Food Fish
Gurnard has only fairly recently become a valued table fish. Previously it was thrown back overboard as bycatch by trawlers or used to bait lobster and crab pots. However, celebrity chefs and restaurant reviewers such as Rick Stein, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and A.A. Gill began talking up the gurnard as a food fish. This had the result of gurnard going up in value from 25p per kilo to £4 per kilo and sales increasing by 1000% between July 2007 and summer 2008. Gurnard is now an established food fish in the UK, with red gurnard the variety most likely to end up on plates and menus. Gurnard stocks are in good shape due to stocks not being exploited in the past, and the fact that gurnard are early maturing and fast-growing mean that, as long as commercial fishing is conducted responsibly, they are a sustainable species to catch commercially, even though the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) have not evaluated this species in UK waters. All species of gurnard are currently promoted as a sustainable fish to eat, with the theory being that eating gurnard will take the pressure off over-exploited species such as haddock and cod.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Gurnard
Fishing for gurnard is best done on open sandy beaches, or beaches where there is light broken ground or scattered rocks which will hold sources of food, although the right rock mark which allows casts onto a sandy patch can produce excellent catches of gurnard. Two or three hook flapping rigs can be used if fishing close in, but if gurnard are not caught it can be better to switch to a one hook clipped down rig and go for distance in an attempt to seek out the feeding fish. Anglers generally use size 1 or 2 hooks, as the majority of gurnard are quite small. Since gurnard are active hunters the addition of some kind of attractor spoon can help catches, and if fishing on a clean beach reeling in the rig a few yards every couple of minutes to add some movement which will interest and attract the gurnard. As always using a plain lead on a snag-free beach will allow the bait to move around and potentially find a fish-holding gully or other feature.
As the gurnard is an opportunistic hunter it will show an interest in pretty much any bait, with ragworm, lugworm, mussels and other shellfish, squid and peeler crab all accounting for this species. Good catches can also come on mackerel or herring strip or on sandeel baits. As gurnard are hunters they can also be caught on lures, although this is not a reliable way to catch this species – probably because most lures are pulled through mid-water to catch fish hunting there, while gurnard mostly feed on the seabed. However, it is not unusual to see anglers fishing for summer mackerel with feathers or bringing in a gurnard, especially if the lures have been fished deep. As gurnard are visual hunters they feed well during daylight, and they don’t seem to mind calm and still conditions. All of this means that gurnard can provide catches and keep anglers entertained when other species are thin on the ground.