Q. I see triggerfish listed on restaurant menus. In seafood markets it’s selling for $15 a pound. What is triggerfish?
A. Triggerfish is a some-what flat, angular, disk-shaped fish that lives in relatively shallow coastal waters, especially around reefs and rocky ledges. Some 40 species are known throughout the world’s oceans. Many are colorful and beautifully marked.
This queen triggerfish is named for its brilliant color and the long, sturdy spine in its top fin, which it uses to anchor itself in cracks and crevices.
The gray triggerfish (Balistes capriscus), one of the less multicolored in the family, is the species most often used commercially. Its mild flavor is delicious no matter how prepared – baked, broiled, fried, blackened, smoked, or dried and salted.
Triggers are named for the long, sturdy spine in their top fin, which they can raise or lower at will. When threatened, or to sleep or secure themselves against strong currents, they retreat into cracks or crevices, flip up the sturdy “trigger” on their top fin and anchor themselves firmly in place. Once “triggered in,” it’s nearly impossible to force them out. These fish are bold and will charge or nip intruders in their territory, including divers, particularly when guarding nest sites.
Triggerfish have eyes that rotate independently. They can also lighten or darken their colors to blend into the environment, or if threatened. Size, depending on species, ranges from a few inches to more than 3 feet in length. Mouths are small but contain strong teeth and jaws. Invertebrates such as mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms and worms are foods of choice.
When hunting, triggerfish fan their fins rapidly and blow a strong stream of water to unearth prey buried in the sand. It may take a number of attempts. To feast on a prickly sea urchin, they blow a stream of water onto the urchin to overturn it, then attack the soft underside. Small fish often accompany triggerfish to feast on leftover tidbits. To view the triggerfish’s hunting technique, view the video at http://vimeo.com/3564340.
Triggerfish tend to be solitary except during mating periods. Males establish spawning grounds and prepare seafloor nests to house tens of thousands of eggs. Females help care for eggs until hatching, blowing water on them to keep them supplied with oxygen.
Because of their splendid colors and patterns, these fish are popular aquarium specimens. Unfortunately, due to over collection in the wild, some species are now listed as threatened. Researchers are working to rear triggerfish in captivity to help conserve wild populations.
Information provided by the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The state operates three public aquariums; one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island, as well as Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The facilities are administered by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and are designed to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environments. For more information, log onto ncaquariums.com, or call 800-832-FISH.