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What is an Eelpout?

By J.L. Drede
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Eelpout are a family of ray-finned fish with the scientific name Zoarcidae. Eelpouts are found ins some of the coldest oceans in the world. Its elongated, compressed appearance makes it frequently confused for eels. Burbot fish, which are commonly found in the Great Lakes, is often mistaken for an eelpout due to its very similar appearance. However the burbot is a species of the Lota family.

There are many different species of eelpout and many are found in colder, even arctic waters. Approximately 40 species of eelpout live in the Arctic sea, with more than half thriving in the the arctic areas of the sea, while the rest are primarily found in the slightly warmer subarctic-temperate waters. Nearly all eelpout species share the same basic physical characteristics. All species of the the fish usually have one long dorsal fin that extends across almost the entirety of its body down to the end of its tail where it usually meets with the anal fin. The fish is usually brown/tan and have light bands extending vertically down through its dorsal fin and body. All are egg-laying species, and usually lay adhesive eggs at the sea floor.

There is great variation in size among the various species of eelpout. Smaller species such as the halfbarred pout are usually only 5.5 inches (14 cm) in length, but larger species such as the ocean pout can be as long as 38 inches (92 cm) in length and weigh more than 11 pounds (5 kg). The ocean pout is also of note because its body contains a special antri-freeze protein that prevents it from being frozen in the coldest of waters. Scientists have been studying the fish to see if this protein can be used to accelerate the growth rates in other fish or even be used to preserve human organs and tissue.

Most eelpout, regardless of size and habitat, tend to be mid-to-deep range fish, and are usually found lying in sediment, rocks or sand where they lie either on the ground or bury themselves in it tail first. The prey of the eelpout varies from species to species, but most feed on small amphipods. Larger species, such as the wattled eelpout, will also eat shrimp, crabs and even other eelpout. Across all species they are prey for larger fish, such as cod and halibut, as well as various seabirds native to the area. Some species, such as the oddly named fish doctor, is often prey for seals as well.

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Discussion Comments
By anon298650 — On Oct 21, 2012

The hydrothermal eelpout fish can withstand the pressure of being at the bottom of the ocean and can handle temperatures as high as 700 degrees f.

By lighth0se33 — On Mar 22, 2012

@kylee07drg – Oh, yes, and it tastes so good! Many people say it tastes a lot like lobster, but I think it has its own unique flavor.

Some of my friends intentionally fish for it and have eelpout dinner parties. One lady likes to boil hers in water sprinkled with brown sugar, but I like to sprinkle mine with special seafood seasoning.

One thing we all agree on is the dipping sauce. We mix roasted garlic with butter and heat it up. It is a flavor I have come to associate with eelpout.

Since eelpout is abundant here, those of us who love it are enthusiasts about fishing for it. Lobster is expensive, and lots of us use eelpout as a cheap substitute.

By kylee07drg — On Mar 21, 2012
Can you actually eat eelpout? I have heard that people living in regions where they are found throw them back like fishermen here in the South toss back bottom feeders like bream.

However, I have also heard of the annual Eelpout Festival. People go out in icy conditions and actually try to catch the eelpout, but they do it as sort of a joke. I don't think many of them actually keep their eelpout.

It seems like it would be slimy and gross to eat. I can't imagine it tasting good.

By seag47 — On Mar 20, 2012

My uncle lives in Minnesota, and he likes to go ice fishing. His favorite sport is battling it out with an eelpout.

He tells me that they put up a strong fight. That is why catching one makes him feel so victorious.

He has to endure really cold temperatures to catch one, though. They like to feed after sunset, when the temperature drops quickly. You know if there is ice on the water, it is awfully chilly out there.

I was surprised to learn that they have a lot of eelpout up in Minnesota. I thought that eels were something that existed in the ocean.

By ddljohn — On Mar 20, 2012

If burbot fish of the Great Lakes is a completely different species than eelpout, why do people call the burbot eelpout?

I even saw a news article the other day that was talking about declining numbers of burbot fish in the Great Lakes. The article actually referred to the fish as "eelpout burbot!" That's so wrong!

I didn't realize that these two are so similar that even people who live in the Great Lakes region mix them up. That's interesting. But at least I know hot to tell them apart if I ever go there!

By ysmina — On Mar 19, 2012

@anamur-- Some scientists and researchers say that eelpout originated in the Arctic, others say that they originated in the Pacific Ocean. If you ask me, I also think that they originated in the Pacific and then spread to other areas including the Arctic waters.

The reason for this is because not all eelpouts have the protein which prevents them from freezing in the ice cold waters of the Arctic. So, some of these eelpouts must have adapted to colder waters over time and developed this protein to survive in very cold water. That's why I think that eelpouts originated elsewhere than the Arctic.

As far as I know, most eelpout live an average of five years. By the way, not all species of eelpout lay eggs, some actually do give live birth. The ones that do lay eggs, do so in huge amounts around fall. But survival rates of eggs and baby eelpouts are not as high as they could be. They tend to develop slowly, so they're at high risk from predators.

Unfortunately, I don't know about their migrating habits, but maybe someone else can pitch in about that.

Hope this helps!

By serenesurface — On Mar 19, 2012

My teacher taught us about eelpout in class this week. She also showed us pictures of it. I was surprised by how long eelpouts' tails are. And they really do have whiter vertical stripes on their body.

I'm doing some homework about eelpout right now. But I need to know more about the origins of eelpout fish. I also need to know more about their life, how long they live for example, if they migrate according to seasons and so forth.

This article has been really helpful, but can anyone give me some more information on eelpout?

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