Scott Turner: Celebrating the uncommon life of the common mummichog
01:00 AM EDT on Saturday, May 7, 2011
By Scott Turner
In a memorable line from the movie, “Toy Story 2,” Jessie sees Woody and shouts excitedly, “It’s you, it’s you; it’s really you!”
That was how I felt when Narragansett Bay Keeper John Torgan, of Save the Bay, held out his palm to show me a three-inch, flip-flopping olive-green backed, vertically striped fish called the common mummichog.
I contacted Save the Bay after watching something dapple the water’s edge in the Blackstone Park/Swan Point cove on the Seekonk River in Providence.
At first, I thought that I was hallucinating. Then, when the Bay rippled on each side of me, I crouched at the shoreline and thought I saw what looked like little fish.
Even with sunglasses, I couldn’t tell what was jiggling the water.
Torgan was kind enough to meet me at the site a couple of days later. He possesses a fisherman’s eye, which is that well-developed skill of looking at water and seeing what most of us don’t.
With the tide out, we walked across mounds of salt marsh peat that were cloaked in ribbed mussels. Underfoot crackled last year’s hollow stems of spartina, also called salt marsh hay. When I stepped on the mud, a soft-shelled clam squirted up.
Wearing boot-foot fishing waders, Torgan negotiated the lapping tide in places where the mud can suck you in. I stayed atop the peat.
Tall wooden rods anchored each end off Torgan’s seining net. Lead weights held down the material, which was topped by floats.
Torgan gave me one side of the net. He held the other, and tilted the device on a low angle, as we dropped the net into the water.
On our first couple of tries, the fish took off. But on the third seine, we collected a couple of wriggling, white-bellied, silvery barred mummichogs.
Torgan said that mummichogs spend the winter in the Bay but become more active in spring. He called them one of the “most common and important salt marsh fish of Narragansett Bay and New England.”
Mummichogs eat all sorts of shoreline and marsh matter, from plankton and decaying algae to mosquito larvae. In turn, bluefish, striped bass, summer flounder and other fish eat mummichogs, which may reach five to seven inches in length.
Herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds like to eat “mummies,” too, Torgan said.
A Native American word, mummichog means, “going in crowds,” a fitting moniker for a fish known for its schooling behavior.
Besides having the kind of fantastical name you don’t mind repeating, mummichogs are one the hardiest creatures around.
Adapted to both fresh and salt water, mummichogs tolerate wide variations in oxygen, pollution and salinity.
Mummichogs also possess two other adaptations to life in the shallows. First, as long it remains moist, a mummichog will draw in small amounts of oxygen through its scales, which is a lifesaver for any fish left behind by a receding tide.
Second, stranded mummichogs possess the ability to flip-flop, head over tail from a tidal pool or puddle back into the bay.
The other visible creature caught in the net was a one-inch-long shore shrimp, which is the most common shrimp found in the coastal waters of New England.
Like mummichogs, shore shrimp prefer inshore habitats, such as the brackish waters of salt marshes, where they munch on most anything.
Thirty years ago, the cove’s major flora and fauna included trash, sanitary items and dead fish. The water stank.
Although the Bay still takes in too much sewage and storm water, its waters are improving.
One of the inspiring aspects of a resurrected Narragansett Bay is that any number of little fish might cause near-shore waters in Providence to plink and plop, as if struck by invisible raindrops.
These “bait fish” include common mummichog and its close relative, the striped killifish, as well as sheepshead minnow, silverside minnow, juvenile menhaden, gizzard shad or bay anchovy.
Such richness is a blessing.
“You can’t have a vibrant Rhode Island without a clean Bay,” Torgan said. “You can’t have a revitalized Providence without a clean river.
“A focus on a healthy Bay and ocean is not special interest, it is a common interest.”
Every known life form on the planet relies on water. That the water around us is both getting cleaner and harboring fantastic life is another reason to shout, “It’s you, it’s you; it’s really you!”
Scott Turner ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Providence-based nature writer. His columns appear here each Saturday.