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What is Rockfish?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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The term “rockfish” when used in reference to fish can be confusing. Depending on regional dialect, the word can refer to any species of fish which lives in rocks, such as sculpins, or it can be used in a discussion of the specific genus Sebastes, which is native to Pacific waters. Striped bass are also known as rockfish, especially along the Eastern coast of the United States. This taxonomic confusion leads most people to refer to fish with a more precise name, to eliminate mistaken identities.

Members of the order Scorpaeniforms are sometimes classified as rockfish. These fish all posses rayed fins, and they are often brightly striped and very bold, considering the small size of many individual species. Their coloration allows them to blend in well with rocks and coral. There are upwards of 20 families in this order of fish, which leaves a great deal of room for biodiversity.

Sebastes is a very large genus of very old, primitive looking fish. There are over 100 species of these rockfish, most of which live in the Northern regions of the Pacific. They are fished for sport and commercial purposes, and some species are believed to be threatened as a result of abundant harvesting. Most of the fish live in the benthic environment at the sea floor, and they tend to favor rocks and other protrusions to hide behind. These rockfish can live to be extremely old, and many are also slow maturing.

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The striped bass, or Morone saxatilis, is an anadromous fish which can be found in both Pacific and Atlantic waters. Along the Eastern seaboard, the fish is widely known as rockfish, and it is prized as a sport fish. Since 1965, the rockfish has been the official state fish of Maryland, an area in which the rockfish has been historically abundant. The fish is well known and respected for being wily and strong.

Given the wide number of fish which can fall under the umbrella term of “rockfish,” it may help to ask for clarification about which fish is under discussion. Along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, it is safe to assume that a “rockfish” is a striped bass, but this is not necessarily the case in other regions. Especially if rockfish is on the menu, clarification is vital, since Scorpaeniforms tend to be rather bony, although their flesh can be quite flavorful.

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