What is a Rockfish?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An array of fish share the common name “rockfish.” This illustrates a widespread problem with common names, that it can be difficult to know which animals someone is referring to, especially since many of the rockfish are unrelated and do not share physical traits. Some are commercially valuable, others are threatened or endangered, and some are relatively obscure fish species.

Acanthoclinus littoreus a rockfish exclusive to New Zealand.
Acanthoclinus littoreus a rockfish exclusive to New Zealand.

Fish in the family Sebastidae are sometimes referred to as rockfish. These fish physically camouflage with rocks, and their bodies are decorated with distinctive sets of stripes. They are venomous and spiny and can be found in many of the world's oceans. One notable species in this family is Sebastes borealis or the Alaskan rockfish. It is found along the coastline of the eastern Pacific and is sometimes sold labeled as red or Pacific snapper, something for consumers to be cautious of. High levels of mercury have been observed in rockfish and they can be dangerous to consume in large amounts.

In Europe, several species of fish used for "fish and chips" are known as rock salmon or rock fish. The tendency to use the same common name for several different edible fish species is commonly the result of marketing on the part of the fishing industry. As a fish becomes popular and well known, other fish species may be sold under the same name as consumers will feel more confident about buying a fish they are familiar with.

In the west Atlantic, Morone Saxatilis, or the striped bass, is another example of a fish known as a rockfish. These silvery fish have distinctive black stripes and they are a popular sport fish. Concerns about bass populations in some regions have led to restrictions on how many people are allowed to catch the fish, with the goal of allowing fisheries to recover.

The Indo-Pacific region hosts fish in the genus Synanceia that are sometimes known as stonefish or rockfish because their bodies blend in with stones. These fish are toxic and very spiny. Finally, a fish exclusive to New Zealand, the Acanthoclinus littoreus, is known as the New Zealand rockfish or stone fish.

The fish under discussion is sometimes clear from the context; if someone is talking about edible fishes, for example, stonefish are probably not the topic of conversation. However, the tendency to use “rockfish” to refer to a number of different edible fish can lead to confusion. If people want to know more about a specific fish, they should ask for the scientific name.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - The only time I've ever encountered the term "rockfish" has been at the fish and chip shop. I guess I don't actually know what kind of fish it is at all.

It kind of annoys me that they can use any kind of label for fish and no one ever checks up on them, particularly if it could potentially be dangerous.


@Iluviaporos - As it says in the article, there are lots of different fish known as rockfish and quite a few of them have spines. I think the one you're thinking of is also called the stonefish.

I only know about it, because it's one of the dangerous animals from Australia and I'm always joking with my friends about how Australia is filled with deadly animals.

Apparently this kind of rockfish doesn't often kill people, because they do have anti-venom at the hospitals. But I've heard the pain can be so bad that people will ask for their afflicted body parts to be amputated, rather than suffer it any longer.

I've also heard that the Aborigines have some lovely rockfish recipes! So they aren't all bad.


Rockfish have always terrified me. Not the kind that you eat, but the kind that has venomous spines.

I don't even think they are found in the area where I live, but I've read about them so much that I can't help but be afraid every time I go into the water. They apparently look just like a rock on the ground and most people don't even see them before they stand on them.

If you stand on one, the rockfish will stab it's spines into you without a moment's hesitation, and basically that will kill you, quickly and painfully. Most venomous animals aren't deadly, but the rockfish absolutely is, and since most people aren't really familiar with it, they probably won't even know what's wrong with you if you get stabbed.

It just terrifies me. Any kind of rockfish information makes me not want to go to the water.

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