The golden tilefish, or great northern tilefish, Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps, is a marine bottom dwelling fish of the tilefish family (Malacanthidae), found on the western Atlantic continental shelf from Nova Scotia to Surinam. It is not found in the Carribean, but does live in the gulf of Florida. Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps means “crested tilus with a chameleon-like head.” A bottom dwelling fish, it lives in burrows that it makes in the sediment or among rocks and ledges along the continental shelf, at depths between 200-1400 feet, feeding on a variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates and occasionally other fish. Tilefish burrows have been found to be very dense in some areas, transforming the sea bottom landscape to hilly tussocks. Tilefish are thought to have an important impact on the continental shelf ecology, hence were designated a keystone species by ichthyologist Ken Able in 1986. These large fish, which reach a weight of over 50 pounds and length of 44 inches, can live for longer than 45 years. Despite their large size, the golden tilefish were not discovered until 1879, when a schooner captain caught the first specimen off the coast of Massachusetts in 1879. Tilefish were soon found to be excellent eating and abundant and their discovery spurned a new fishing industry in the next several years. However, in 1882, soon after its discovery the tilefish experienced a devastating die-off, in which an estimated billion tilefish floated dead in waters north of Delaware Bay. Research on the species led to the conclusion that this near annihilation of the species was caused by a shift in the flow of the Gulf Stream up the continental shelf, temporarily diverting these warmer waters over far deeper waters. Tilefish, which were found to live in a very specific region defined by the constant warm temperatures (between 47-53 degrees F) are intolerant to colder temperatures but thought to be unable to follow the Gulf Stream which no longer flowed over a bottom habitat. The population, thought for years to be extinct, rebounded and slowly increased in numbers such that they were discovered again ten years later. Currently, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) categorizes golden tilefish as highly susceptible to overfishing, and populations especially in the US Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic are depleted. Turner (1986) and Barans and Stender (1993) also indicate that fishing has drastically reduced Golden tilefish stock and reduced northern populations. Tilefish are most commonly caught by longline, sometimes in bottom trawls, and are a popular sport fish. The EDF also warns that these southern populations are high in mercury, that women and children should not eat them; men should limit their consumption to once/month.
(American Littoral Society; Bigelow and Schroeder 1953; Environmental Defense Fund 2011; Jones and Schmidtke 2012; Steimle et al. 1999)
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