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A mojarra is a type of small fish that lives predominantly in tropical waters throughout the Caribbean and off the Atlantic coast of parts of Central and South America. The name mojarra is actually a family name, and can be interchangeable with more official family name Gerridae. Over 50 species of fish can be included in the family. All are members of the scientific class Actinopterygii and the order Perciformes. There are some differences between species, but in general all included fish are relatively small with shimmering silver scales; they usually have deeply forked tails and protruding mouths that they use to uncover food buried on the sea floor. They’re often eaten by humans, particularly the larger varieties, though they are also very commonly used as live bait in fishing. How the fish are identified and how they look can vary depending on species and precise location.
These fish are almost always silvery in color with striped spots that sometimes look like painted bars. They typically have a deeply forked tail and a dorsal fin that has a pronounced spike and extends all the way down to the back. Members of the family have 24 vertebrae, and a noticeably pointed “snout,” known more formally as a “protractile mouth”; it it longer on the bottom than the top, which enables the fist to sift through the sand at the bottom of shallow sea areas in order to find food. The fish typically feed on on small invertebrates like worms and plant matter.
Most are small fish, though there can be some variety between species. In general their maximum length is about 1.15 feet (about 35 cm), though males can reach up to 1.32 feet (about 40 cm).
Members of this fish family live predominantly in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean, including the islands of the Bahamas, the Caymans, and Cuba, and much of Central and South America including Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast also see many species. They tend to be called different things in different places, and may occur in different varieties in different types of water. Common names for mojarra in English include blinch, broad shad, sea patwa, and silver perch. Tilapia are sometimes also included, but this isn’t technically correct; the tilapia is a member of a different fish family, even though it shares many of the same physical characteristics.
Mojarra are most commonly found in the ocean, but they sometimes also inhabit brackish water, which is water that is a mixture of both fresh and salt water. Marches and inland streams are good examples of brackish habitats, and these places are often the homes of younger fish or smaller varieties.
Since fish in this family eat primarily worms and kelp growing on the sea floor, they are often found swimming near the bottom of the water. They often prefer naturally shallow island waters for this reasons, but they have been found at depths of up to about 229 feet (70 meters).
It’s often the case that different species and variations live more commonly in one place than another, and local farmers and fishermen often have their own ways of classifying and identifying them. The coasts of Mexico have some of the widest varieties of this fish family, including the dark spot, golden, and Pacific flagfin. Fish of the Gerridae family in the Mexican region tend to have large rough scales that cover their bodies, while others have slender bodies that are lacking the dark bars on the side more typical of fish found elsewhere. Sometimes the best way to classify the fish is to study characteristics other than their outside appearance, including their skeletal structure and arrangement of teeth and fins.
The biggest uses for these fish are as a food and as a bait. The larger varieties are often sold for human consumption, and can be baked, grilled, or fried; they tend to have a delicate flavor that isn’t overwhelmingly “fishy.” They are also a prized food group for a number of larger fish, including sharks, and this makes them valuable as a live bait. Fishermen will hook smaller varieties while they are still alive, and will use them to lure larger fish. This is a particularly popular tactic in sport fishing.