BOO! Happy Halloween from this spooky species, the Monkfish

 

Lophius_americanus_museum_of_nature
Photo courtesy Mike Beauregard via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, we’ve decided to highlight one of the more creepy looking fish that can be found in the waters off of New England. The monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goose-fish, anglerfish, and sea-devil, is considered a delicacy abroad, but until recently has been overlooked in America, perhaps due to its obtrusive appearance.

The monkfish is highly recognizable, with its brown, tadpole-shaped body, and its gaping, fang-filled mouth. These eerie-looking fish can be found from Newfoundland to Georges Bank, and all the way down to North Carolina. They prefer to dwell on the sandy or muddy ocean-floor, where they feed on a variety of small lobsters, fish, and eels. Monkfish are typically found at depths of 230-330 feet, but have been caught in waters as deep as 2,700 feet; they have also been known to occasionally rise to the surface and consume small, unsuspecting birds. Females can grow up to forty inches and males up to thirty-five inches, and both can weigh up to seventy pounds. The average market size fish is around seventeen to twenty inches long.

Before the 1960s, monkfish were considered to be undesirable bycatch. However, in the wake of the collapse of the New England Atlantic Cod fishery, the monkfish has slowly started to become a more common alternative, in part due to awareness campaigns about “underutilized species” in New England. Now, monkfish is caught to supply both international and domestic demand – the tail is prized for its firm texture and sweet taste, perfect for baking and poaching, and the liver is used in Japanese sushi.

In fact, in the last two decades, fishing has increased so dramatically that monkfish stocks started to decline. Landings peaked in 1997 at sixty million pounds. However, thanks to the quick action of both the United States and Canada, a management plan was put in place and the stock population started to increase and stabilize. Landings now average around thirty-five million pounds annually. Monkfish are caught using trawls, gillnets, and dredges. The fishery is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These organizations do not impose annual catch limits, but do limit daily catches as well as limit access to the fishery. Nevertheless, the catch is still exceeding target catch levels in certain locations.

Current threats to monkfish are common among New England marine species: warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and habitat loss.

NOAA Fishwatch considers monkfish to be well managed and a “smart seafood choice” – however, it is still vulnerable, and the fishery should continue to be closely monitored, or it could suffer the same fate as other groundfish fisheries.

So, if you are looking for a spooky-themed seafood dish for this weekend’s festivities, it might be time to give monkfish a try… It would also make one unique Halloween costume!

Monkfish Look Like They Could Bite Your Foot Off

This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.

Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.

As effective as this strategy seems to be, this bottom-dweller does get up near the surface every now and then – to eat birds. Researchers have recently discovered little puffins in the bellies of monkfish that were caught between 275 and 495 feet down, off the coast of Chatham, MA. Monkfish fish get around! And, I will confess, I didn’t even know we had puffins in New England.

I would really love to see some Crittercam  footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.

Here are some other interesting monkfish facts (these and more can be found in this fact sheet from World Wildlife Fund).

  • Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
  • These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
  • They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
  • Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.

Julia Child and a large monkfish. © copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
Julia Child and a large monkfish. Copyright 2000-2007 Getty Images, Inc. [Steve Hansen/TimePix]
 While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the  fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.

As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.