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Coastal fish

by  Carl Walrond

Kahawai, flounder, groper, blue cod, tarakihi – many fish are caught by recreational anglers and commercial boats close to the coast. Hundreds of other species also frequent this varied habitat, including the seahorse, the neon pink maomao of the north, and the southern telescope fish.

New Zealand’s coastal fish

New Zealand has a diverse array of marine fish – over 1,000 known species. Most are found widely through Australasia, the Indo-Pacific and the Southern Ocean. Around 11% are endemic – occurring only in New Zealand. Many of these are inshore species such as triplefins, common in rock pools. Of the 270 species of coastal fish, about 25% are endemic.

Described here are the more common, sought after and interesting species of the coast, reef and rock pool.

Coastal species

Many species are widespread around the coastal waters of both main islands. Coastal waters can be defined as the stretch of water up to the edge of the continental shelf. Included are estuaries, sandy shores, rocky coastlines, offshore reefs and the continental shelf.

Northern and southern

Around 15% of coastal fish prefer the warmer waters of the far north, reaching southern limits between East Cape and Cook Strait. A small proportion are tropical wanderers that show up during summer.

Distinctly southern species (8% of all coastal fish), which prefer cooler waters, reach their northern limits between Banks Peninsula and Cook Strait.

The remaining 77% of coastal fish are found in both southern and northern waters.

Shallow-water fish

Many New Zealand fish live near the shore, in depths of less than 10 metres. They can be divided into two groups: demersals (living on or near the sea floor), and pelagics (living in the water column above).

Most of the fish species found only in New Zealand (endemic) live in the rocky intertidal zone. Of the 83 species found in here, 54 are endemic and few of the remainder are found further afield than Australia.

Demersals: sea-floor species


These small fish, which have three dorsal fins, are Tripterygiidae, the most diverse family of coastal fish in New Zealand – there are over 25 species, mostly endemic. Many are little researched as they are small and hide in rock pools.


The remarkable seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) is widespread around New Zealand. It prefers sheltered harbours, estuaries and other coastal waters, where it hunts tiny crustaceans.

The male has a pouch where the female lays its eggs, to be fertilised by the male. The male incubates the eggs, and a month later tiny seahorses are born.


Wrasse are a very large family of tropical and temperate sea reef fish. There are many species in New Zealand waters, the most common being the endemic spotty (Notolabrus celidotus). Also known as kelpie, guffy and paketi, this is a favourite catch for children fishing from the wharf.

Wrasse are mainly loners that swim around rocky areas, eating almost anything that lurks on the bottom or on the rocks. They have flexible bodies and thick lips, and use sharp teeth to pick small creatures off the rocks.


Although 11 species of right-eyed flounder have been recorded in New Zealand, the most commonly seen and caught are sole (Peltorhamphus novaezeelandiae) and sand flounder (Rhombosolea plebeia).

As larvae, flounder have one eye on each side of their heads. Then as they transform into juveniles the left eye migrates to the right side of the head. The left side of the body becomes the underside of this flattened fish, which rests on the sea floor. (There are also left-eyed species.)

Flounder and sole are widespread in muddy and sandy sea floors around New Zealand, well camouflaged by their colour and flattened profile.

Pelagics: open-water species

Yellow-eyed mullet

The yellow-eyed mullet (Aldrichetta forsteri) is common in estuaries, harbours and sheltered bays, and is also found in the lower reaches of rivers. It is known to Māori as aua. In summer, large schools are seen in estuaries. They are often incorrectly called sprats or herrings.

Grey mullet

The grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) is widespread throughout the world. In New Zealand it is most common in northern harbours, and is often caught with set nets.


This long, slender fish (Hyporhamphus ihi) looks like a spear. Also known as a garfish, it occurs in shallow coastal waters and feeds on seagrass fragments, shrimps and crab larvae. In turn it is preyed on by kahawai, kingfish and, as it is often near the surface, gannets and shags.

Coastal predatory open-water fish


Although the kahawai (Arripis trutta) is sometimes called sea trout or sea salmon, its resemblance to trout or salmon is only superficial.

The average size is 40–50 centimetres. The fish group together according to size, and schools of juveniles 20–35 centimetres long are quite common.

Kahawai live in open coastal waters throughout New Zealand, but are more common around the North Island. They seldom venture more than 20 kilometres offshore. Adults eat crustaceans and small fish, juveniles feed on plankton. In turn, they are prey for orcas, bottlenose dolphins, kingfish and bronze whaler sharks.

An important commercial species since the 1970s, kahawai are also sought by recreational anglers for their fighting qualities. The flesh has not always been considered the best eating, but if the fish are bled and kept cool they yield good-quality fillets, and taste delicious when prepared in a smoker.


The snapper (Pagrus auratus) is probably the best known and most highly prized New Zealand sea fish. It is the country’s only sea bream, and also occurs off Australia.

Snapper live at all depths down to about 200 metres. They are most commonly found on the west and north-east coasts of the North Island. Stragglers reach south to Foveaux Strait. They feed on seabed invertebrates and near-bottom squid and small fish. Their average size is 30–50 centimetres, but they occasionally grow to 1 metre.

The fish are favoured by recreational anglers for the struggle they put up when hooked. They make fine eating. Commercial fishing increased during the 1970s and early 1980s, with annual catches of 10,000–15,000 tonnes. Some stocks were overfished. As snapper are both long-lived and territorial, not venturing far from their home area, depleted stocks take a long time to recover. Under a government system to manage fish stocks (the Quota Management System), stocks in some areas are recovering.

Fish out of water

The frostfish (Lepidopus caudatus) regularly strays into coastal waters. One man recalls finding them at Clifford Bay in Marlborough:

‘On two occasions I stood between a frostfish and the beach, and, as he came on, turned him with a long stick head to the sea, making him swim out, but, in a minute or two, he turned again for shore, going up high and dry as fast as possible. So, as he seemed to have set his mind upon landing, I gave up the attempt to influence his decision, and took him home for breakfast.’ 1

Yellowtail kingfish

The conspicuous yellow tail of the kingfish (Seriola lalandi) identifies this worldwide species. It is widely distributed around the North Island and northern South Island, extending southward in summer. Mainly an open water fish, it may enter estuaries and enclosed waters in search of small pelagic fish (pilchards, kōheru) and crustaceans. Kingfish are aggressive predators that swim quickly. Schools often hunt around offshore reefs. They can reach 1.7 metres in length and weigh 56 kilograms.

Recreational anglers target the species – they fight well and the flesh is excellent. Two related fish, the Samson fish (Seriola hippos) and amberjack (Seriola rivoliana) are also sometimes found in warmer northern waters.


Barracouta (Thyrsites atun) are carnivorous fish of tropical and temperate seas. They are slender and long (averaging half a metre), with a wicked set of teeth. Known to Māori as mangā, they were very important to the Ngāi Tahu tribe of southern New Zealand, who used lures to catch them. When split and dried they were a staple food.

During the 1980s and 1990s they formed a significant commercial fishery, with 20,000–30,000 tonnes caught annually.

  1. R. A. A. Sherrin, Handbook of the fishes of New Zealand. Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1886, p. 31. › Back

Plankton-feeding open-water fish

Anchovies, pilchards and sprats

Anchovies, pilchards and sprats are small, silvery pelagic fish of coastal waters.

Anchovies (Engraulis australis) are most common around the North Island and the north-western South Island. These schooling fish are often found in association with pilchards and sprats in open waters.

Pilchards (Sardinops neopilchardus) are widely distributed, but notably scarce on the south-east coast of the South Island. In the past they have also been known as sardines, herrings and bloaters (when canned).

Two very similar sprat species (Sprattus antipodum, Sprattus muelleri) are common around the continental shelf off the South Island, but less common off the North Island. They are commonly preyed on by seabirds and larger fish.


The trevally (Pseudocaranx georgianus), known to Māori as araara, is a plankton feeder, most common around the northern North Island where they move in close-packed feeding schools. Stragglers sometimes reach as far south as Banks Peninsula. In summer, they can be seen hunting down krill and other plankton, their backs breaking the water.

Trevally became an important commercial species in the 1960s and 1970s, when schools were targeted by spotter planes. Stocks became overfished, and declined by the 1980s. Recreational anglers make use of the narrow tail, which makes a good ‘handle’ as the fish struggles vigorously when brought aboard.

Jack mackerel

There are three very similar-looking jack mackerels found in New Zealand waters (Trachurus novaezelandiae, Trachurus declivis, and Trachurus murphyi). All species are schooling fish.

The silvery jack mackerel (Trachurus novaezelandiae), restricted to Australasia, is found throughout New Zealand harbours and bays, but is more common in the north-east. The average adult size is 30–40 centimetres.

Trachurus declivis is a slightly larger fish (adults averaging 35–50 centimetres) and is more widely distributed from Australasia up through South-East Asia to Japan.

Trachurus murphyi are larger again, and appear to have invaded New Zealand waters, in the 1980s, from the open ocean. This species is abundant off the Chilean and Peruvian coasts, and it now makes up most of the New Zealand jack mackerel catch.

In the 1980s jack mackerel became an important inshore commercial species, caught by purse seiners – fishing boats that use nets to enclose the fish.


Related to the jack mackerel, but less common, is the kōheru (Decapterus koheru), which is found mainly off northern New Zealand. This small, silvery, plankton-feeding fish uses schooling strategies to avoid predators. When the fish are tightly-packed, their yellow-green side stripes merge, confusing predators. They tend to school below surface waters, and if attacked by marauding kingfish, they will often dive down to the reef.

Fish of the open sea floor

Fish that live on or near the sea floor are known as demersal. They occupy different habitats – open sea floor (consisting of sand, gravel, mud) or rocky sea floor. Those on the open sea floor can be divided into northern, southern and New Zealand-wide groups.

Northern species

John dory

This mid-water predator (Zeus faber) can hardly be seen front-on because it is so thin. However, from the side the John dory looks quite large. Distracting its prey with an eye-shaped spot on its side, it scoops up the hapless creature in its large, protrusible mouth. The species is widespread north of Cook Strait and occupies a variety of habitats, from sandy sea floor through to reefs.


The bluish-green porae (Nemadactylus douglasii) grows to 70 centimetres and is found in northern waters over reefs and sand or gravel bottoms. Porae are long-lived – large fish may be up to 30 years of age. They freely take bait and put up a good fight, yielding palatable white flesh.

Southern species

Red cod

This commercial fish (Pseudophycis bachus) is often seen laid on ice in fish shops. It is restricted to New Zealand and southern Australia, and more common along the South Island’s east coast, where large schools form over sand and muddy bottoms. The cod uses a barbel (fleshy filament) on the lower jaw to detect prey buried in mud or sand.

Blue moki

The blue moki (Latridopsis ciliaris) is found throughout New Zealand but is more common in the south, especially on the east coast in depths of 20–100 metres. They feed on a wide range of crabs, shellfish and worms on the sea floor. This is a commercially significant species.


A rather ugly species, the monkfish (Kathetostoma giganteum) looks a bit like a bulldog. Also known as a giant stargazer, it is caught commercially and has firm, tasty flesh. While widespread in New Zealand waters, it is more common around the South Island. Using well-developed pectoral fins it burrows into the sea floor, grabbing fish with its large mouth.

Turbot and brill

These brownish-green flatfish resemble flounder and sole, and are taken by coastal trawlers. The turbot (Colistium nudipinnis) has dark blotches, while the brill (Colistium guntheri) is mottled. Both are endemic to New Zealand, and very good eating.

Widespread species


The tarakihi (Nemadactylus macropterus) is found throughout New Zealand. It feeds below 25 metres, scavenging worms, crabs, brittle stars and shellfish from the bottom. At night it rests on the sea floor, where its colouring becomes blotchy. This species also occurs in southern Australia where it is known as morwong.

Last gasps

Recreational anglers know the tarakihi well – when lifted from the water it often squeaks as air is expelled from its air bladder. Red gurnard often grunt when they are captured.

From the mid-1940s the annual commercial catch was around 4,000–6,000 tonnes, but this has declined.

Red gurnard

The red gurnard (Chelidonichthys kumu) is found in fairly shallow water to depths of around 180 metres. It also occurs off southern Australia and South Africa.

Red gurnard feed on crustaceans such as small crabs and shrimps. Their large pectoral fins rest on the bottom and are used to detect food. Shallow coastal trawlers have exploited the gurnard since the 1930s, and by the 1970s it was the fourth most important coastal species.

Widespread fish of the rocky sea floor

Blue cod

Not actually a cod but a sand perch, this endemic fish (Parapercis colias) is favoured by fishermen for its flaky, pinkish-white fillets.

The species is more common south of Cook Strait. They are inquisitive fish and will often approach divers and bite their fingers with their lippy mouths. Commercial fishing boats target them around the south-eastern coast and the Chatham Islands, where they are caught in pots like crayfish.


The bluenose (Hyperoglyphe antarctica) is widely distributed around New Zealand, usually near rough sea floor. They feed on fish, crustaceans and small squid in depths of 100–500 metres. They are an important commercial species and the catch increased rapidly from around 1980. The flesh is firm and pinkish, and whitens when cooked.

Groper and bass

The groper or hāpuku (Polyprion oxygeneios) is found all around New Zealand. The average length is 80–120 centimetres. They occupy a wide depth range, from reefs just below the surface down to more than 400 metres. They eat just about any moving animal that comes their way.

These important inshore commercial fish were once caught with deep longlining, but since the 1970s gill nets have been used. They are very popular with recreational anglers and make excellent eating.

Bass (Polyprion americanus) look similar to hāpuku, but are generally a stouter fish. They are often taken along with groper by commercial boats and are also good eating.

Let them eat cement

Leatherjackets have a reputation for eating just about anything, which probably helps explain their widespread distribution around New Zealand. Diver Wade Doak recalls some encounters:

‘Once when we were laying concrete underwater, leatherjackets sneaked up and gulped down our cement. While we were firing explosive concrete bolts into rocks, they would persistently take mouthfuls of cartridge grease, only to spit it out solemnly.’ 1

Red-banded perch

The endemic red-banded perch (Ellerkeldia huntii) has six or seven vertical brown bars over its reddish-brown body. This reef-dwelling species is unusual in that some individuals undergo a sex change from female to male as they mature.


Known to Māori as kōkiri, this fish has a distinctive body shape (it looks like a rugby ball) and a dorsal spine. Two species occur in New Zealand waters: the leatherjacket (Parika scaber) and the Morse-code leatherjacket (Thamnaconus analis). The Morse-code leatherjacket is very rare in New Zealand and is usually only seen around the Kermadecs.

  1. Wade Doak, Fishes of the New Zealand region. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984, p. 107. › Back

Fish of the northern and southern rocky sea floor

Northern rocky sea floor


These brightly coloured coastal fish have two barbels (fleshy filaments) extending from their chins – resembling a goat’s beard. With these they detect their prey of small invertebrates living on the sea floor. New Zealand has a common species, the red mullet (Upeneichthys lineatus), and two rare species – the black spot (Parupeneus spilurus) and bar-tailed goatfish (Upeneus francisi).

Red moki

The red moki (Cheilodactylus spectabilis) is a distinctive species with its alternating reddish-brown and white vertical stripes. The species occur most commonly off the North Island around reefs, and off southern Australia. They may live for up to 60 years.

Splendid perch

Often found swimming in loose associations with pink maomao, the splendid perch (Callanthias australis) is named for its markings. The male has a purple head, red-orange rear and yellow tail fringed with purple. The female is red-orange with purple fins. They mate in mid-October, when the markings of the male become spotted, and aggressive courtship dances occur. They are mainly found around the North Island, but occasionally as far south as Westport.

Pink maomao

This neon pink fish (Caprodon longimanus), known to Māori as mata, mostly lives in areas with moderate currents, below 10 metres. The average length is 30–40 centimetres. They are abundant around rocky headlands and offshore islands to depths of 80 metres. A schooling fish, they feed until dusk on plankton. They are found mainly on the north-east coast of the North Island.

Black angelfish

Restricted to New Zealand and Lord Howe and Norfolk islands, the black angelfish (Parma alboscapularis) is blackish with a white mark above the gill. They are a territorial reef fish found from the Bay of Plenty northwards.


The demoiselle (Chromis dispilus) is found mainly in the warmer waters around the North Island where it is one of the most abundant reef fish, feeding on plankton. These small fish (10–20 centimetres) have been termed the swallows of the sea because they swoop and dart about as they grasp food borne on currents. Like swallows they have deeply forked tails, which open and close like scissors so they can twist and turn as they feed. Dense schools of up to 500 fish provide protection when predators such as kingfish attack.

Southern rocky sea floor

Black cod

Also known by the name Māori chief, this species (Paranotothenia angustata) is quite common in rocky areas around southern New Zealand and some subantarctic islands. It is dark grey to greenish with darker mottling. Caught on lines, it is edible but inferior to blue cod, and is often used as bait in lobster pots.


Also known by the Māori name kohikohi, the trumpeter (Latris lineata) is a reef fish that is rare north of East Cape. They frequently school with blue and copper moki. Averaging 50–80 centimetres in length, they feed on small fish, octopus and squid and are highly regarded by recreational anglers.

Telescope fish

Found mainly south of Cook Strait on rocky coasts, the telescope fish or koihi (Mendosoma lineatum) is more abundant around the southern South Island. They form fast-moving schools near reefs. Their telescoping jaws are used to feed on small fish and crustaceans.

Acknowledgements to Malcolm Francis

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How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Coastal fish', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 12 June 2006