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October 26, 2001

Mystery Eel

An eel-tailed fish from Louisiana stumps our Fish Facts experts.

Q: While fishing the West Delta off the Louisiana coast last summer, my friend caught an eel-tailed fish. I thought it was a cusk fish, but another angler identified it as a bearded brotula. Can you tell me anything about this fish?
- Richard K. Husser, Metairie, Louisiana

A: Maybe. It's not a cusk fish because the tail of the cusk (Brosme brosme) is slightly separated from the dorsal and anal fins. It looks like a bearded brotula (Brotula barbata) but doesn't seem to have the many barbels on the snout and chin for which that species is named. It also resembles some of the larger cusk eels, of which there are about a dozen species in the Gulf of Mexico, although it appears large for cusk eels. The black-edge cusk eel (Lepophidium brevibarbe), which grows to about 1 foot, has a scaly head and a forward-projecting spine under the skin of the snout tip and is characterized by its plain pattern, rounded pectoral fins and blackish edges on the dorsal fin and rear part of the anal fin. The bank cusk eel (Ophidion holbrooki) also has black-edged fins and grows to about 1 foot, but its head is unscaled and there is no spine on its snout.
Cusk eels and bearded brotula are both members of the cusk-eel family, Ophidiidae. They are edible and fished commercially in some areas, but not often in the U.S. In general, cusk eels are bottom dwellers of temperate and tropical shelf waters, feeding on small fishes. Bearded brotula are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and from Bermuda to northern South America from near shore to the upper continental slope. Black-edge and bank cusk eels are found in the northern Gulf of Mexico to about 300 feet and from northeastern Florida to Brazil.
Several brotula and cusk eel species which closely fit the description of this fish reportedly grow to only 4 or 5 inches. I'll be interested to hear if any of our readers can identify the species of this fish more exactly.