I am going to be honest and say that I know very little about this fish. I did not know they even existed until I attended college. Shortly afterwards, my father-in-law asked “hey, have you ever heard of a tilefish?” – to which I responded yes… He was having lunch at a restaurant in Apalachicola, and it was on the menu. My father-in-law was an avid fisherman and knew most of the edible species, but he had not heard of this one. The rumor was that it was pretty good, though my father-in-law chose not to eat it that day.
I have never seen it on a menu, and only a few times in the local seafood markets, but according to Hoese and Moore1 by the late 1970s there was a small commercial fishery for this fish emerging in Louisiana, as was a small recreational fishery. In Florida, since 2000, there have been 15,435 commercial trips for this fish with an average of 321 each year. The value of this fishery over that time is $33,118,554 with an average of $689,969.90 each year. The average price for the fishermen was $2.62 per pound with the highest being $5.14/lb. on the east coast and that in 2022; the Gulf fishermen are getting $4.16/lb. right now.
The highest number of landings per county since 2000 was 340 in Palm Beach County in 2000. Only eight times has there been more than 200 landings in a single year over the last 22 years. Five of those were in Monroe County (Florida Keys) and three were again in Palm Beach County. The vast majority were less than 100 landings in a single year, this is not a large fishery in Florida either.
Are they harvested here in the Florida panhandle?
Yes… Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Okaloosa, Wakulla, and Gulf Counties all reported landings. Bay County seems to be the hot spot for panhandle with landings between 50-100 each year since 2000. Most of the other counties report less than 10 a year and several only reported one. Again, this is not a large fishery, but it was sold at a restaurant in Apalachicola and is said to be good. Hence, I decided to include in this series.
Hoese and Moore report four species of tilefish in the Gulf of Mexico. The sand tilefish (Malacanthus plumeri) is a more tropical species. The tilefish (Lopholatilus cheamaeleonticeps) and the gray tilefish (Caulalatilus microps) seem to be the target ones for fishermen. Both are reported from deep cold water near the edge of the continental shelf. FWC reports them from 250 – 1500 feet of water where the temperatures are between 50 – 60°F. Because of their tolerance to cold water, their geographic range is quite large; extending across the Gulf, up the east coast to Labrador. They live in burrows on hard sandy bottoms and feed on crustaceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration2 reports this as a slow growing – long lived fish, up to 50 years of age. In their cold environment, this makes sense.
This is not a well-known fish along the Florida Panhandle but maybe one day you will see it on the menu, remember this article, and take a chance to see if you like it.
1 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press. College Station TX. Pp. 327.
2 Golden Tilefish. 2020. Species Directory. NOAA Fisheries. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/golden-tilefish.