Monkfish are cartilaginous fish – like sharks – but are adapted for life on the sea bed and in fact look more like skates and rays. They derive the names monkfish and angel shark from the shape of the head and the enlarged, flattened pectoral fins which give the appearance of a monk’s cowl or angel’s wings.
Of the 14 different species belonging to the monkfish family, only one lives in British waters, so it is fairly easy to recognize. It may possibly be confused with the angler fish, which has a similar shape, but teeth, jaws, fins and various other features are completely different.
Growing up to 2m (7ft) in length, the monkfish has a broad head and body which quickly tapers down to a much thinner tail. The large nostrils are placed on the top of its head above the eyes and the wide mouth is full of sharply pointed teeth.
The monkfish’s skin colour varies depending on its surroundings, but it is generally a sandy or greyish brown with finely spotted, darker markings on the upper half of its body. Consequently when it lies half buried in the sand it is very well camouflaged. With its abrasive texture, monkfish skin was once used to polish wood and also to treat some skin ailments.
Best described as a scavenger, the monkfish hunts for food by moving gently over shingle, mud or sandy sea beds, using highly developed barbules under its mouth to feel for prey. It feeds mainly on flatfish, but invertebrates such as crabs, whelks and shrimps are also on the menu.
Little is known about the breeding habits of monkfish except that, like some other sharks, but unlike rays, they give birth to fully formed young. Anything from 9-16 embryos develop within the mother and the baby fish are about 23cm (9in) when born.
It is not known where monkfish mate but they are not thought to breed in British waters. Essentially warm water fish, they are only found around Britain’s coasts in summer, migrating southwards for winter.
Clinging to the sea bed
Although monkfish can swim effectively over long distances, they are not renowned for their fighting abilities on rod and line. Nevertheless, they adhere tightly to the sea bed and hauling them up can take a lot of strength. Unfortunately numbers around Britain are not high because of overfishing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and few have been landed in recent years.
Tackling a big fish like this needs balanced equipment- a 30 lb (13.5kg) class rod and a 4/0 or 6/0 multiplier are ideal.