What Is Butterfish?

Nutritious butterfish fillets can be served pan-fried or grilled.
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  • Written By: Lumara Lee
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2015
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The butterfish, or peprilus triacanthus, is a schooling fish with an oval body that roughly resembles a flounder. This small fish inhabits the waters along the Atlantic coast of North America between Florida and Newfoundland. Its body is mainly grayish blue and silver, and is usually covered with an abundance of dark, irregular spots. The butterfish grows rapidly and is sometimes able to reproduce when it is one year old. Most specimens have an average life span of around 3 years.

Butterfish are generally 6 to 9 inches (15 to 23 centimeters) long, with a few reaching a length of 12 inches (30.5 centimeters). They migrate as the water temperature fluctuates, swimming south and farther from land during the coldest months, then returning north and closer to shore in the summer. Butterfish are often seen in schools of 50 to 100 fish, and spend most of their time near the surface of the water, feeding on small fish, annelid worms, and crustaceans such as shrimp and krill. They prefer depths of less than 180 feet (55 meters) and water temperatures between 40°F and 74°F (4.4°C to 23°C). Butterfish experience a high mortality rate, and their many natural predators include the hammerhead shark, swordfish, flounder, haddock, and bluefish.


They spawn once a year between June and August, and most egg production occurrs in July. Their eggs are transparent and round, with a diameter of 0.7 to 0.8 inch (1.8 to 2 centimeters). They hatch as larvae approximately 0.78 inch (2 millimeters) long. The young butterfish often swim among the tentacles of jellyfish for protection, and sometimes as many as 15 young are protected by a single jellyfish. They appear to have a natural immunity to the toxin in jellyfish tentacles.

Butterfish have a rounded snout, large eyes, and a forked tail. Their dorsal and anal fins are almost the same length. They have small, soft scales that shed easily when touched, and their meat has few bones.

Also known as escobar, sheepshead, and dollarfish, the butterfish is used as both food for human consumption and as bait for larger fish. It has been commercially fished in the United States since the 19th century. The fish was first used as a fertilizer until people discovered it was good enough to eat.

Its fat content makes the meat moist, tender, and delicious. The fish can be purchased fresh, frozen, or smoked. It can be baked, poached, grilled, or fried in a pan. This fish is nutritious as well as tasty, and provides vitamin B6, selenium, potassium, and niacin.


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