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What is a Tilefish?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The tilefish is a deep-water fish, living and feeding near the ocean floor in large burrows it makes in softer areas of the sea bed at depths of up to 1,500 feet (457 m). Some species of tilefish reach more than 4 feet (1.2 m) in length. It is estimated that tilefish live to be 50 years old, although it is difficult to give an accurate estimate. They are generally large, predatory fish that have powerful jaws containing two rows of teeth on each jaw. The outer rows are large and reasonably blunt, while the inner rows consist of small, sharp teeth set close together.

Tilefish eat large quantities of invertebrates, shellfish, anemones, fish and eels. These fish live in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical oceans around the U.S. Most tilefish varieties are brightly colored; the larger varieties are colored in hues of blue, pink and gold, while smaller varieties have similar coloration but also shades of purple and yellow. Some smaller specimens, such as the purple or yellow tilefish, can be kept in marine aquariums but are often shy and prone to stress. It is quite common for captive tilefish to starve themselves if too stressed for prolonged periods and to attempt to leap out of the tank, so only an experienced marine aquarist should attempt to keep this fish.

Larger varieties, such as the golden tilefish and the blueline tilefish, are commercially fished. In some areas, both of these species have been seriously over fished, meaning numbers are declining rapidly. This decline means that both the golden tilefish and blueline tilefish are at risk of disappearing entirely in some areas without the intervention of strictly enforced conservation plans.

Tilefish have a slow growth rate and do not reach sexual maturity until around 6 years of age, which means that breeding and replenishing their numbers is a slow process. This species is unable to reproduce to a level that would replenish the number taken from the water each year. As more fish continue to be taken, the numbers continue to decline. In most areas, a strictly enforced fishing quota is now in place to prevent further overfishing and to allow the fish to recover.

In and around the Gulf of Mexico, long-lived, predatory fish such as tilefish contain high levels of mercury. This can cause serious health problems, especially to unborn babies, breastfeeding babies and young children. When consumed in large amounts, fish contaminated with mercury can also pose serious health risks to otherwise healthy adults. Mercury can take up to two years to leave the human body; therefore, each time a person eats contaminated fish, the level of mercury in the body increases. The intake of tilefish and other predatory fish caught in and around the Gulf of Mexico should be strictly limited and, in the case of nursing mothers and pregnant women, should be avoided entirely.

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