Monkfish have a mild taste and texture similar to lobster to the extent that they are sometimes called “the poor man’s lobster.” Fishermen tend to remove monkfish tail meat and livers to sell, discarding the rest. Monkfish is sold fresh whole, in skinless tail fillets, and whole skin-on tail fillets as well as frozen skinless tail fillets and whole skin-on tails. Tail meats range from 1-4 lbs. and the meat is dense, boneless, and firm. Tail meat should have flesh that’s off-white to pale gray when raw. Avoid tails that are discolored at the edges and headless monkfish that have dried up blood, indicating it’s begun to age.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for monkfish based on landings data from 2014-2016 and the most recent Seafood Watch ratings as of March, 2019:
~45% of landings are rated "Good Alternative (yellow)" (trawl-caught and gillnet-caught from the U.S.)
~55% of landings are unrated/unknown (dredge-caught and uncoded landings)
>95% of global landings of monkfish are landed in the United States
Global landings for monkfish in 2016 saw an increase of ~5% compared to 2014 landings but saw a decrease of ~10% compared to 2012 landings
Female monkfish grow larger and live longer than males; females live to at least 13 years old, growing over four feet long, and are able to reproduce at 16 inches in length. Male monkfish, however, live to seven years old, grow up to three feet in length, and are able to reproduce at 14 inches in length. Monkfish migrate seasonally to spawn and feed, spawning from February to October. They travel slowly by swimming or by using their wing-like pectoral fins to walk along the ocean floor or to ride currents.
Female monkfish release large egg veils containing more than one million eggs. The veil floats near the surface with the current until it disintegrates and the larvae hatch. The larvae feed on zooplankton, and the juveniles eat small fish, shrimp, and squid. Adult monkfish eat fish, including other monkfish, as well as crustaceans, mollusks, seabirds, and diving ducks. Overall, monkfish are opportunistic feeders, eating the most available prey at the time. Monkfish hunt by ambushing their prey, using a modified spine on their head as a fishing pole to bait and lure them to their mouths. Once the prey is close, the monkfish sucks them into their mouth, trapping them behind rows of backwards-pointing teeth. While most predacious fish such as swordfish, sharks, and thorny skate preys upon small monkfish, larger monkfish have few predators.
Monkfish are found from the Grand Banks and northern Gulf of St. Lawrence to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Juveniles are pelagic while adults are found on the ocean floor, often in a depression or partially covered in sediment. Adults prefer living near sandy, muddy, and shell habitats and can tolerate a wide array of temperatures and depths – from inshore waters down to 3,000 feet. They also spend time off the sea floor, most likely riding ocean currents during seasonal migrations to spawn and feed.
Science & Management
NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center manages the Cooperative Monkfish Research Program, which includes:
Surveys to estimate monkfish population status and stock assessment workshops
The Monkfish Egg Veil Sighting Network, which helps scientists gain a better understanding of when and where monkfish spawn, and where the egg veils travel by studying ocean circulation patterns
The Monkfish Research Set-Aside Program allots 500 monkfish days-at-sea for monkfish-related research projects. Researchers are also working with commercial fishermen to use electronic tags in New England waters and the Gulf of Maine to track the fish’s geographical and biological movements and determine whether there are distinct northern and southern stocks.
Increased water temperatures due to climate change is likely to affect the distribution and stock size of monkfish by expanding the breadth of suitable habitat. Spawning timing and location, development of larvae, and availability of prey species may also be affected. Improving knowledge on the influence of temperature change on monkfish populations serves as the basis for assessing the future of monkfish.
NOAA Fisheries, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) manage the US monkfish fishery. In the 1990s fishers urged the NEFMC and MAFMC to draft a fishery management plan for monkfish in response to concerns from overfishing due to high demand in Europe, Japan, South Korea, and eventually, the US. Beginning in 1999, the NEFMC and MAFMC have jointly managed the US monkfish fishery under the Monkfish Fishery Management Plan – with the NEFMC being the lead for developing management measures. The Monkfish Fishery Management Plan divides and manages the US monkfish fishery as two stocks – a northern stock that covers the Gulf of Maine and northern part of Georges Bank and a southern stock that covers the southern flank of Georges Bank through the Mid-Atlantic to North Carolina. The distinction between the two stocks is mainly due to regional differences in fishing gear. The northern monkfish stock is primarily caught using trawl gear and is more integrated with a multispecies fisheries, while the southern monkfish stock is primarily caught by gillnetters targeting monkfish almost exclusively.
The Monkfish Fishery Management Plan includes a number of measures aimed at rebuilding monkfish populations and has been successful in allowing both northern and southern stocks to rise above target levels where the stocks are neither overfished nor is overfishing occurring. Among the management measures the Plan includes are:
Annual catch limits
Limited access permits
Size and landing limits
Seasonal and permanent closed areas
Gear restricts to protect sensitive habitat
Also included in the Monkfish Fishery Management Plan are measures to reduce bycatch. The Plan limits the amount of bycatch of other fish species by setting possession and landing limits and annual quotas specified in fisheries for those species. Additionally, the Plan mandates that all mesh used by gillnetters and trawlers be larger than the established minimum size to reduce to bycatch. In the Mid-Atlantic, management measures prohibit gillnetters from using large mesh (7 inches or greater) in some areas during certain times of the year to protect migrating sea turtles. Fishing closures are also timed based on projected sea surface temperatures to avoid incidental catch of sea turtles.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) manages the monkfish fishery in Canada.
Monkfish, a deep-water species found along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada, have characteristics including slow growth and dense aggregation that make them vulnerable to fishing pressure. Following increased demand in the 1980s and 1990s, monkfish were found to be overfished in 1999. Fishery managers implemented a rebuilding plan and in 2008, monkfish was declared rebuilt. Stock assessments done in 2013 showed that monkfish is not overfished or subject to overfishing, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Monkfish are caught with either bottom gillnets or bottom trawls. While bottom trawls and gillnets can have a significant impact on seafloor habitat, the gear used to catch monkfish operates in muddy and sandy areas that tend to be resilient to disturbance.
The monkfish fishery has bycatch that has included protected species such as sea turtles, large whales, harbor porpoises and Atlantic sturgeon, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Bycatch primarily occurs through entanglements with gillnets, but strict measures are being taken to reduce the risk. Some intsitutes report that it is often is difficult to attribute gillnet deaths of marine animals and turtles to a particular fishery.
Monkfish fishery management measures include area closures, area restrictions, annual catch limits, minimum harvest size and gear requirements such as limits on large-mesh gillnets. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that total allowable catches have been frequently exceeded in the past, although the fishery has been improving on that in recent years. The monkfish fishery previously had an "Avoid (red)" rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium but management actions and changes to the biomass targets helped that change to a "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating in 2012.