What are Monkfish?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The common name “monkfish” is used to describe several distinct species of fish, including fish in the genera Lophius and Squatina. As a general rule, the fish which share this common name have a number of traits in common as well, including a regrettable level of ugliness. These bulgy, slightly flattened fish tend to live near the seafloor, leading biologists to classify them as benthic or bottom dwelling fish, and they are found primarily in the Atlantic Ocean.

Some research on monkfish fisheries has suggested that they are overfished, and consumers may want to seek out different types of fish if they are worried about sustainability.
Some research on monkfish fisheries has suggested that they are overfished, and consumers may want to seek out different types of fish if they are worried about sustainability.

One distinguishing characteristic of monkfish is the head, which is broad and flattened with large lips. Monkfish also have several filaments which project from their heads; one of the filaments has a bulb of flesh, which is designed to act as bait to attract smaller fish. When fish approach, the monkfish snaps them up, typically swallowing them whole. These filaments are believed to be residual remainders of the upper fin of these fish, and a number of benthic fish use such tactics to attract dinner.

Monkfish are brown, with warty skin. Their tails are extremely thick and muscular, powering them along the ocean floors that they call home. Monkfish vary in size; three to six feet (one to two meters) are common lengths, and some fishermen have recorded even bigger specimens. Like other angler fish, fish which use biological adaptations to essentially fish for prey, the stomach contents of monkfish can sometimes be quite intriguing.

Originally, fishermen viewed monkfish as a useless bycatch, and in fact many thought of monkfish as monsters. Many works of art depicting sea monsters are actually drawings of monkfish, typically with their characteristic jaws agape. Some species also have cowled heads, explaining the common name of “monkfish.” Depending on species and regional dialect, monkfish are also called goosefish, frogfish, sea devils, bullmouths, bellyfish, and allmouths, in a reference to their huge mouths.

People have also used monkfish as a source of food. The dense, slightly sweet tail meat has been a popular alternative to lobster, for example. Unfortunately, research on monkfish fisheries has suggested that they are overfished, and consumers may want to seek out different types of fish to ensure that monkfish populations stay healthy. The fish also bioaccumulate mercury, which can be very dangerous for pregnant women and developing children. The United States Food and Drug Administration has also warned consumers that inedible species of fish are sometimes sold as "monkfish," capitalizing on consumer demand and potentially putting people in danger.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - I don't think many people will actually get to that point of mercury poisoning from eating fish. If that were true, people in countries like Japan where fish is eaten every day, would be reporting cases all the time.

Although I've heard that people who eat whale meat are at the most risk of mercury poisoning, because it has very high amounts.

But even small amounts of mercury can be dangerous and may cause long term damage to your lungs and liver and so forth. So it is best to try and avoid eating too much monkfish, and other fish which are known to have high mercury levels.

That said, fish is very good for you, so you shouldn't quit it altogether. Just be cautious about it.


The idea that fish can cause mercury poisoning is one that people should take seriously, particularly if they are a woman who is, or might become pregnant.

They've done tests on random people and discovered that they had high amounts of mercury in their body tissues.

And it can easily cause birth defects and other problems.

Plus, back in the day, the term "mad hatter" came from mercury poisoning, as people who made hats worked with mercury and often got sick because of it. The early symptoms are similar to being drunk, with people stumbling and becoming confused.


Monkfish are actually quite scary looking. I find them quite fascinating when I see them in markets and I don't find it at all surprising that they have been used as the inspiration for pictures of sea monsters.

I've never actually been able to bring myself to eat one, although I've heard that fried monkfish is quite tasty.

There's just something about the way their jaw hangs so wide, and the teeth are displayed quite prominently.

It might also be the fact that they actually lure in little fish with the lights hanging down from their foreheads.

I've actually also heard them called stargazers which makes sense, because their eyes are on the tops of their heads, but seems like far too pretty a name for such a warty, ugly fish.

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