Ugly Fish of the Day: Monkfish

'Poor man's lobster'?

Monkfish (or Headfish) is the English name of a number of types of fish of the genus Lophius that are found in the Atlantic Ocean.  How it came to be named after Christian monastics may remain a mystery, while its other monikers such as: frog fish, seem more accurate in describing a fish that is notable for its huge mouth and hideous visage.  Oddly, it is sometimes called Goosefish by New Englanders.

Monkfish is the permitted name in the UK for several species, including Lophiodes caulinaris, Lophius americanus, Lophius budegassa and Lophius piscatorius . They are related to other ugly denizens of the deep, such as Anglerfish and the Angelshark genus Squatina. The term is also occasionally used for a European sea monster more often called a sea monk. Two species, Lophius piscatorius and Lophius budegassa , are found in north-western Europe and referred to as monkfish, with L. piscatorius  the most common species around the British Isles.

This ugly fish has three long filaments sprouting from the middle of the head, which are the detached and modified three first spines of its anterior dorsal fin. As in most anglerfish species, the longest filament is the first (illicium ), which terminates in an irregular blob of fishy flesh” the esca. This fin is moveable in all directions. The wiggling esca is used as a lure to attract other fishes, which monkfish then typically scarf down whole.  Whether or not their prey has been attracted to the esca lure is immaterial: monkfish jaws are set into motion automatically in reflex to contact with the esca .

The monkfish head is enormous, broad, flat and depressed, while the remainder of the body appears like a mere appendage. The wide mouth extends all round the front of the head, and both jaws are armed with bands of long pointed teeth, which are inclined inwards, and can be retracted to allow food fish to merely drift into the maw. Its stomach is reputedly so large that the monkfish can consume critters larger than itself. Also, its pectoral and ventral fins are can serve like feet and allow the monkfish to walk on the bottom of the sea, where it hides in the sand or seaweed. All round its head and also along the body, the skin bears appendages that make the fish resemble drifting eaweed. These appendages, and the monkfish's ability to change the color of its body to match its surroundings, provide excellent camouflage and the means to easily approach its prey. 

These finny creatures grow to more than 5 feet (1.5 metres), even while 3 foot specimens are most common. The largest on record to have been caught weighed a whopping 219 pounds (99.4 kilograms)!

Swimmers should not worry too much about encountering these fish, since they normally live at great depths. Fishermen like them because of the high prices they can command. This is because the tail meat of these creatures was once known as  ‘poor man’s lobster’ but can now command prices exceeding the price exacted for the delicious crustaceans. According to Seafood Watch, monkfish consumption raises sustainability concerns due to past overfishing and damage to the seafloor habitat resulting from the use of trawlers and gillnets to catch this fish.

Whatever you may wish to call it, Monkfish is especially savoured by gourmands of the Iberian Peninsula where the Spanish people enjoy the second highest rate of fish consumption in the world following the Japanese. The Spanish, not to be outdone, call it rape.  Oh, those Spanish: they have a word for everything!


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Lophiiformes

Family: Lophiidae

Genus: Lophius


Lophius americanus
Lophius budegassa
Lophius gastrophysus
Lophius litulon
Lophius piscatorius
Lophius vaillanti
Lophius vomerinus

Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

Filed under fish, travel, uk, gourmet, seafood, biology, fishery, Gourmet


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