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Stargazer fish will make ’public appearance’ at Coast Day

This rare 10-pound northern stargazer will be on display for visitors to see at UD’s 30th annual Coast Day on Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Lewes campus. Afterwards it will be released into the Delaware Bay.

12 p.m., Sept. 26, 2006--The University of Delaware's Coast Day is just around the corner, and making its appearance in an aquarium there this year will be a rare catch--and a whopper at that--a 23 1/2-inch, 10-pound northern stargazer.

Kris Battaglini of Broadkill Beach caught the fish on Sept. 7 at a location known as “the 8s,” which is almost “dead center” in Delaware Bay. He gave the live fish to the College of Marine and Earth Studies, which will display it for visitors to see at UD's 30th annual Coast Day on Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Lewes campus.

Battaglini, a psychologist, will retire from his position as program director for autism at the Cape Henlopen School District on Oct. 1; he also periodically teaches courses on autism for the University of Delaware. He was fishing for flounder aboard his 20-foot Grady-White boat when he thought he hit a snag on the bay bottom.

“And then it started wiggling,” he said. It took him about 10 minutes to pull the fish, “which was like an anchor,” out of the sand, and then reel it in.

“In 27 years of fishing in Delaware Bay, I had never seen a fish like it,” he said. So he put it in the live well aboard his boat and brought it ashore for identification.

Now William Hall, education specialist for the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, fills us in on this fascinating fish.

What exactly is a stargazer?

Its scientific name, Astroscopus guttatus, means "one who stares at the stars." As you can see in the photo, this fish's mouth and eyes face up. It's a lie-and-wait predator that buries itself in the sands and muds at the bottom of the bay using its strong pectoral fins. When the northern stargazer is buried, only its mouth and eyes are exposed, and it blends in with the environment. There it waits, with only the top of its head exposed, for a small fish or crab to come by.

Then what happens?

When the unsuspecting victim is near enough, the stargazer uses its large mouth to create a vacuum and sucks the prey in. And that's not the whole story because the stargazer is also one of two coastal fishes that can generate an electrical charge (the other is the torpedo ray).

How big a jolt can this fish deliver?

William Hall, education specialist for the Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service
Unlike the electric eel, the stargazer's charge is not strong enough to kill its favorite foods--small fish, crabs, and other crustaceans. Rather, its charge stuns and confuses its prey, rendering it helpless.

Is the stargazer dangerous to humans?

It is not harmful to us, but it can produce a small shock, which is more surprising than dangerous to the angler.

How does the fish make electricity?

The electricity comes from a group of muscles near the eye that forms a Y-shape on the top of the fish's head. The muscles produce and store a charge, acting like an electric capacitor, holding and releasing the charge as needed to stun prey. The stargazer that lives in our region--the northern stargazer--is one of at least 50 species in eight genera worldwide. One genus contains members that can produce an electrical charge.

How common is the northern stargazer in our area?

This fish is classified as “occasional”; therefore, it's not commonly caught. Its range is relatively small, from New York to North Carolina in shallow waters near shore out to 120 feet. A related species, the southern stargazer, is found from South Carolina to South America.

Is this the biggest northern stargazer on record? How big do these fish generally get?

The northern stargazer generally ranges in size from 8 to 16 inches long. This fish was a record catch for Delaware Bay, at 23 1/2 inches and 10.15 pounds, to be exact. However, the New Jersey record holder is larger. Caught in the ocean off Cape May in 2000, it was 24 inches long and tipped the scales at 13 pounds.

What will UD now do with this fascinating fish?

The fish will be displayed at Coast Day and then released to swim another day.

Article by Tracey Bryant

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