Fish Facts

Fish Facts: Hussars

The dusky reddish brown stripe along the brown hussar’s flank distinguishes it from the pink hussar which has a yellow stripe. Image: Dr Ben Diggles

VISITORS to the tropical north of Australia who are fortunate enough to fish in offshore coral reef areas will probably be familiar with hussars, a group of relatively small but pretty tropical lutjanids in the genus Lutjanus. Closely related to the larger, more frequently targeted lutjanid reef dwellers like red emperors, red bass, and adult mangrove jacks, the hussars are usually encountered as bycatch along with other small relatives like stripeys (Spanish flag, Lutjanus carponotatus). The hussars can be distinguished from the other smaller lutjanid species by having distinctive colour patterns incorporating bright pinkish to red colouration with a single prominent longitudinal stripe along the flanks.

There are two species of hussar in Australia’s tropical waters. The most commonly encountered is the pink hussar (Lutjanus adetii), or yellow banded snapper which, as its name suggests, has a pink or bright red colouration of the fins and flanks, interrupted by a bright yellow longitudinal stripe from the back of the head to the tail wrist, together with a yellowish colour to the eye. The second species is the very similar looking brown hussar (Lutjanus vitta), also known as brown striped snapper, which has a dusky reddish brown colouration to the body and flanks, a brown to khaki coloured longitudinal stripe running from the snout through the eye to the tail, and dirty yellow dorsal and tail fins.

Of the two species, the pink hussar has the most restricted distribution, being limited to the southern Great Barrier Reef and eastwards to New Caledonia. In contrast, the brown hussar is broadly distributed throughout the Indo-West Pacific from the Seychelles east of Africa throughout Asia north to Japan and south throughout northern Australia and down to New Caledonia. Adults are found in the vicinity of coral reefs at depths of 10 to 70m, also around areas with rubbly flat bottoms. Brown hussar are encountered singly or in groups of up to about 30 individuals, while pink hussar may form large schools around certain coral outcrops during the day, but disperse to feed at night. Both species feed mainly on smaller fishes, shrimps, crabs and other benthic invertebrates.

Both hussars have a typical life history for the smaller tropical lutjanids, being relatively slow growing and surprisingly long lived. Brown hussar begin to mature in their second year at between 15 to 20cm long, after which growth becomes “asymptotic” and slows markedly. They reach around 25 to 28cm long after five years and virtually cease growing after that, reaching a maximum size of 35 to 40cm in fish that may be 12 or so years old.

The pink hussar has similar growth rates and ages at maturity, but lives longer with some fish being aged to around 24 years old on the Great Barrier Reef, and possibly up to 40 years in New Caledonia. This might be why occasional specimens of pink hussar have been recorded growing to a relatively large maximum size of around 45-50 cm long. Both species are excellent eating, but because of their relatively slow growth and longevity, both hussars (but particularly pink hussar), are technically relatively vulnerable to overfishing. However, on the Great Barrier Reef both species are managed by a minimum size of 25cm which provides several years protection to mature fish prior to them recruiting to the fishery, as well as tight possession limits of 5 for brown hussar and 10 for pink hussar within a total overall possession limit of 20 at any time for all coral reef finfish.

Also, Queenslands reef fish fishing closures occur during the October/November spawning season, thus providing additional protection for hussars during critical times of the year. Given that a third of the Great Barrier Reef is also closed to all fishing, this all means that populations of both species of hussar are well managed, and are consequently not likely to be threatened (at least by fishing) in this part of the world in the foreseeable future.

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