Monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goosefish is a type of anglerfish that is common in the Western North Atlantic. As an anglerfish, they hide in the mud or sand and catch prey with the use of a specialized “lure” on its head. They are caught year-round along the U.S. Eastern seaboard but landings increase when the fish migrate to shallower water in the spring.
There are several other fish within this genus that are caught in the Atlantic and Pacific, that are also sold as monkfish. The angel shark, an unrelated endangered species from the European coast has also historically been called monkfish. Most monkfish species are smaller than the American variety, which can get to over 50 pounds.
Monkfish have been seen in European fish markets since at least the Middle Ages, but were of little to no commercial value in North America until around the late 20th century. They were a bycatch of the early bottom trawlers that fishermen often brought home. The good taste of monktails would not be a secret forever and eventually the liver and tail meat were marketed to the public.
Monkfish has become much more well-known in the 21st century, turning this once inexpensive species into an ingredient seen on high-end menus. The two managed stocks of Atlantic monkfish are not overfished, but are still strictly managed within the Northeast Multispecies Fishery. Monkfish has become increasingly available and appealing to both chefs and consumers.
How They are Caught
These fish are almost exclusively caught commercially using otter trawl or gillnets, and occasionally by scallop dredge. They are an important species, caught on muddy or sandy bottoms as vessels target other species of groundfish. Monkfish are rarely caught on a hook, which is why the recreational fishery is almost non-existent. I remember many fishing boats coming in with several boxes of monkfish tails, a box or two of the monkfish livers tied up in plastic bags and then the rest of the monkfish would be left whole.
The supply of monkfish in US markets is almost exclusively sourced domestically. This means monkfish is a great way to support local fisheries. Monkfish are not a pretty fish, almost alien looking. They are sold whole, especially in Europe and increasingly in fancier fish markets in the US, but are more often found as a filleted tailpiece. With a fish that is mostly a gaping maw of pointed teeth, most of the meat is in the tail section. These meaty tails and the livers are the marketable parts of the fish.
If you buy a whole monkfish watch out for the teeth, if you grab the fish wrong they will go through a gloved hand like a dozen hypodermic needles. Fresh or frozen tail meat is available year-round and should be a firm looking piece (skin-on or skinless), off-white in color. Monkfish are naturally slimy so avoid if it looks dried out or discolored.
Monkfish is a sturdy piece of fish that can be cooked in a variety of ways. The firm texture and sweet meat of monkfish has given rise to the moniker of “poor man’s lobster.” These days however, fresh monkish is one of the most valuable fish in the US market. Another example of a trash fish turning into treasure once the consumer gets better access to it.