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What Is a Jewfish?

By Alex Paul
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The name jewfish can be used to describe two species of fish. One is the Atlantic Goliath grouper, which is found along most of the eastern seaboard of North America. It is a large fish that has become critically endangered. The second is the West Australian dhufish, which is a striped fish found in deep water off the coast of Australia. Both fish belong to separate families and are dissimilar in many features apart from name.

Of the two jewfish species, the Atlantic Goliath grouper, is probably the most well known. This fish, until recently, was officially known as the jewfish until its name was changed in 2001. Most people, however, still call it by its former name. The fish lives in and around coral regions off the coast of North America, as well as regions on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Atlantic Goliath grouper fish can grow to around 8 feet (2.5m) in size, and can weigh up to 680 pounds (approximately 300 kg). The fish are commonly caught for food; they are easy to catch using a spear as their size makes them relatively bold compared to other species. Goliath Groupers eat a mixture of other fish, turtles, and crustaceans.

Due to heavy overfishing of the Atlantic Goliath grouper, the species is now considered to be critically endangered. In many countries, including the U.S., the fish is protected, which has helped to increase its population. It is thought that it will be a number of years before the species returns to its former levels.

The West Australian dhufish, as the name suggests, is found off the coast of Australia. It is also commonly known as a jewfish as well as the pearl perch. The fish is most commonly seen in deep waters, although it is known to visit shallower waters during breeding season.

The fish is distinguishable by the dark stripes that cover the body. All specimens have stripes, but they fade as the fish gets older. The maximum size of the fish is about 48 inches (122 cm), so it is smaller than the other jewfish variety. Other features of the fish include a dark strip through the eye and a silver coloring over most of the body.

Similar to Atlantic Goliath grouper fish, the West Australian dhufish is hunted for food. The fish is often sold in fresh markets where it is popular. It isn’t, however, thought to be in danger of extinction at the current time.

What Is a Jewfish?

A jewfish is not just one single fish; instead, two separate species have somehow claimed the same name. Atlantic Goliath grouper and West Australian dhufish belong to the jewfish category.

Atlantic Goliath Grouper

In the early 2000s, one of the two jewfish species, the Atlantic Goliath grouper, rescinded its moniker as a jewfish, though some people are still adjusting to the change. The Atlantic Goliath is found in North America, and this former jewfish is located in both coral regions off the coast and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a sizeable species that can grow up to eight or more feet, weighing in at just under 700 pounds. That’s a whopper of a catch!

This particular type of grouper can be identified by its distinct appearance and markings. In addition to its large mouth that it uses to eat larger prey from the bottom of bodies of water, it also has forward-set, beady eyes. Other defining characteristics include:

  • Covered in little dark spots
  • Huge bottom feeder fish
  • Mottled with yellow, green, brown, and black blotches
  • Small, rounded fins
  • Spiky dorsal spines that are low set

West Australian Dhufish

The other jewfish species is the West Australian dhufish, also known as the pearl perch. The dhufish is found in the deep ocean waters off of the coast of Australia, and it can also make an appearance during breeding season near more shallow areas. Unlike its partner in jewfish crime, the Australian dhufish grows only up to about three feet and pushes three pounds at most. The dhufish is considered a catch because it is elusive, not because of its impressive stats.

The dhufish can also be picked out of a line-up. While it is much smaller than the grouper by several lengths and pounds, it is known for its unique markings of horizontal stripes down the body and vertical lines on the face. Other details that set dhufish apart include:

  • Males are identified by elongated filament on dorsals
  • Dhufish spawn in pairs
  • Because they thrive in deep waters, dhufish have enormous eyes
  • Cavernous mouths for larger prey
  • Belong to the Glaucosomatidae family
  • Often suffer barotrauma when fished from deep waters

Is the Term Jewfish Derogatory?

The term jewfish is not appropriate, nor is it appreciated by members of different communities. As a result, the Atlantic Goliath rescinded its participation in the term jewfish back in 2001. The Australian government has been publishing stats on the dhufish while reminding people that it is dhufish rather than jewfish since at least 2011.

While it does not appear that the origin is derogatory or based in hate, it is best to allow all communities to reclaim their terminology as they wish. The term jewfish is no different. Swapping out Atlantic Goliath, Goliath, grouper, dhufish, or pearl perch, respectively, shouldn’t be too much trouble for an avid fisherman with extensive knowledge of fish.

Why Are They Called Jewfish?

The origin of the strange term remains largely unknown. Why two totally different fish are called jewfish is also a mystery. The Australian dhufish has potentially more logic behind it than the grouper; it bears some phonetic resemblance to the word jewfish. Grouper, however, is more enigmatic in its beginnings.

A few stories seem to have prevailed over the years as to why the term jewfish came to describe the enormous Atlantic grouper. While a selection of these stories seem like truly tall tales, others might have some foundation in reality. Some conjectures on the origin of the name jewfish include:

  • Grouper were identified by their giant mouths as jawfish but was muddled to jewfish
  • Grouper was the enormous fish that swallowed Biblical Jonah, rather than a whale
  • Grouper is described by Italians as guipesce, or bottom feeder, which sounds like jewfish
  • Grouper is considered the fish of fishers of men; they go forth and multiply by God’s will
  • Grouper is deemed kosher according to the Levitical Law, then was named a Jew’s fish

Are Jewfish Endangered?

Originally, Atlantic Goliaths and Australian dhufish were so populous they were considered easy fishing. Hence, one of the original conjectures for the naming of the fish. However, after several years, the Atlantic Goliath was overfished due to its versatility in stews and chowders in the fare of the northeast.

As a result, the Atlantic Goliath grouper is critically endangered and is not fished in the United States currently, though other types of grouper are. The West Australian dhufish is routinely fished, sold, and is still populous enough to not have protected status in Australia. The delicate, moist, and firm dhufish flesh is prized at markets across the country.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Jewfish?

A Jewfish, more commonly known today as the Goliath grouper, is a large saltwater fish that inhabits tropical and subtropical waters, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean. It's known for its massive size, with some individuals growing up to 8 feet long and weighing over 700 pounds. They are characterized by their broad heads, round tails, and mottled, brownish-yellow coloring.

Why was the name 'Jewfish' changed to 'Goliath grouper'?

The name 'Jewfish' was deemed culturally insensitive and was officially changed to 'Goliath grouper' by the American Fisheries Society in 2001. The new name reflects the fish's impressive size and strength, reminiscent of the biblical giant Goliath, and is considered more appropriate and respectful.

What does the Goliath grouper eat?

Goliath groupers have a varied diet that includes crustaceans, fish, octopus, and young sea turtles. They are ambush predators, using their large mouths to create a suction and swallow prey whole. Their feeding habits play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems.

Are Goliath groupers endangered?

Yes, Goliath groupers are considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution have significantly reduced their populations. Conservation efforts, including fishing bans in some regions, are in place to help their numbers recover.

Where can you find Goliath groupers?

Goliath groupers are found in the western Atlantic from Florida to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. They prefer shallow, coastal habitats such as coral and artificial reefs, where they can find ample shelter and food sources.

Can you fish for Goliath groupers?

Fishing for Goliath groupers is currently prohibited in the United States and other parts of their range due to their endangered status. Strict regulations are enforced to protect these fish from further decline, with the goal of eventually restoring their populations to sustainable levels.

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