Trumpeter Whiting

ONE of the staple bread & butter species commonly encountered by anglers fishing the estuaries and bays along the east coast of Australia is the trumpeter whiting (Sillago maculata).  Also known as winter whiting or diver whiting, trumpeter whiting are endemic to eastern Australia and can be found in inshore areas from north of Cairns  to eastern Victoria.  This species first became known to science in 1824 from specimens collected in Sydney Harbour.  The name trumpeter whiting refers to the faint grunting sound these fish sometimes make when first taken from the water. They can be distinguished from yellowfin/summer whiting by the numerous relatively large dark blotches that are scattered along their upper body, as well as the black spot at the base of their pectoral fin.   Similar looking small whitings in other areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory are actually a different species, namely the closely related Sillago burrus.  

As far as whiting go, this species is relatively small, growing only to around 30 cm long with the majority of fish caught being around 20cm in length.  Until recently little was known about the life history of this species, but recent work by NSW Fisheries has found some surprising new information. Despite their small maximum size, trumpeter whiting can live for up to 12 years, suggesting that growth is very slow once they reach maturity.  The average length at which 50 per cent of the trumpeter whiting became mature was around 15cm, at which time they were one to 3 years old. Sexes remain separate throughout their lives, and in NSW peak spawning activity occurs in spring and summer between the months of September and February.  Spawning occurs in estuaries and coastal bays and the females probably spawn several times in a spawning season. Growth differed between sexes, with males attaining a slightly smaller maximum length than females. The maximum ages for males and females were 9.5 and 12.0 years, respectively. 

Trumpeter whiting prefer to frequent silty and muddy substrates rather than clean sand, and they are mainly found in the deeper water in coastal bays. However, they also are commonly encountered in the mouths of rivers, estuaries, and mangrove creeks, particularly the juveniles which abound in shallow water near seagrass beds during summer. Their diet consists mainly of small crustaceans such as amphipods and copepods, while adults naturally consume these as well as polychaete worms and bivalve molluscs. Trumpeter whiting tend to frequent the same habitats where prawns are found, and hence in places like Moreton Bay, this species makes up a large proportion of the finfish bycatch taken by inshore prawn trawlers. 

As far as a fish for kids goes, it’s hard to beat trumpeter whiting.  They are willing biters that will attack most baits, strips of red plastic and even small lures.  The action can be constant when they are around, and they are sweet to eat, though a little fiddly to fillet given their small size. Due to their often prolific numbers, in the past fisheries for trumpeter whiting have not been regulated with minimum size limits or bag limits. However, they have been included under a mixed bag limit of 20 for whiting in NSW, and in recent times a bag limit of 50 has been introduced in Queensland, as fisheries management agencies learn more about their relatively slow growth and initiate precautionary management arrangements.

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