Discover the Goatfish- The Saltwater Red Mullet

Goatfish are found in tropical areas and are found in shallow ocean waters with coral reefs. Their distinctive barbels aid in their ability to sense food as they spend their time searching the sand or reefs for invertebrates to eat. Still, there are other distinctive qualities of the goatfish. Learn about the ecology and life cycle of the goatfish and why this saltwater red mullet is so sought after in some areas.

4 Amazing Goatfish Facts

Goatfish get their name because they have two sensory barbels hanging from their chins that give the impression of a goatee. Goatfish search for food by using their barbels to explore the sand or reefs.

Various kinds of goatfish have different habits. Some fish are solitary and feed only throughout the day. Others gather in big classrooms during the day and feed at night.

The majority of goatfish species have vivid colors. Every species has the ability to alter their hue to blend in with their surroundings and evade predators.

Eating goatfish was an aesthetic experience for the Romans of antiquity. Mullus barbatus, the most common species of goatfish, was a major contributor to the Mediterranean fishing industry.

Scientific Classification of Goatfish

Perciform fish, a suborder of ray-finned fish, include goatfish, which are members of the Mullidae family. Goatfish, which are also called red mullets, are classified into six genera and at least 65 species.

The goatfish is categorized scientifically as follows:

Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Superfamily: Percoidea
Family: Mullidae


Goatfish reside in areas of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans that are tropical or subtropical, with sandy bottoms and close to coral reefs. These fish rarely venture below 360 feet in depth. Because goatfish populations are so large, their conservation status is now listed as least concern.


Goatfish are elongated fish with forked tails and two widely spaced dorsal fins. There are six to eight spines on the first dorsal, and roughly eight to nine soft rays on the second dorsal spine. They have 24 vertebrae in total.

Goatfish grow to a maximum length of 24 inches, while the most reach about a foot in length. Goatfish typically reach a weight of one to two pounds.

Although most species of goatfish have vivid colors, not all of them do. All goatfish species, however, have the ability to alter their color so that it blends in with their environment and helps them conceal from predators. Actually, Mullodidichthys mimicus, the mimic goatfish, can mimic the blue-striped snapper’s look. This explains why schools of blue-striped snappers are frequently frequented by mimic goatfish.

The goatfish appears to have a goatee because of its two chin barbels. The goatfish uses its barbels’ chemosensory organs to find food when it’s dark or unclear outside. The goatfish can detect enzymes in the water thanks to the barbels, which are an extension of their taste system. This could direct the fish to a food supply or alert the goatfish to potential predators nearby, depending on the enzymes.

The freckled goatfish, Upeneus tragula, was studied to determine whether the size of the barbels was influenced by the availability of food. In the lab, scientists denied nourishment to a group of freckled goatfish for two days. It was discovered that the goatfish in this group had bigger barbels than the ones that were fed regularly. The freckled goatfish was able to catch prey and outcompete other fish for food thanks to its bigger barbels. The freckled goatfish’s growth rate was slowed down as a result of these bigger barbels, though.


Carnivores like goatfish consume bottom-dwelling invertebrates like worms, crabs, and tiny mollusks. Goatfish species have been known to consume tiny fish. The goatfish uses its chin barbels to detect prey as it roots about in the sand in search of food. The sand is then discharged from the gill cover as the prey is ingested. Certain goatfish species prefer to spend their days on the reefs and are active at night. While they are not active, other species feed during the day and hang out in groups.


Goatfish are the primary food source for large reef predators like jacks, tuna, mahi-mahi, and sharks. These fish are also popular in Asia and Hawaii as bait, and they are used in many recipes.

Lifecycle and Reproduction

Because they are pelagic spawners, the buoyant eggs of goatfish are dispersed by water currents. Till they hatch, the eggs drift with the currents. The larvae then take four to eight weeks to mature and generate barbels. Goatfish begin bottom-feeding as soon as their barbels emerge, though some species continue to feed on plankton until they mature, which takes one to two years.

Cultural Importance

In Hawaii, goatfish are very popular. Owing to its delectable flavor, the manybar goatfish is celebrated in a Hawaiian song as the “great moano of the lehua,” or moano-nui-ka-lehua. The Hawaiian word moano means “pale red color.”

In Hawaiian, the whitesaddle goatfish is referred to as kūmū, which means instructor, foundation, or source. The kūmū was provided by priests as offerings to the gods at rites such as hula ceremonies or canoe launches. Hawaiians also considered the kūmū to be a highly valued delicacy, which they cooked in ti leaves, covered in salt, or broiled for three days before roasting.

The ancient Roman fishery also included goatfish. For the Romans, two particularly sought-after and costly species were the red mullet (Mullus barbatus) and the striped red mullet (Mullus surmuletus). The aesthetic dining experience of these goatfish varieties was highly prized. The goatfish’s capacity for mimicry allows them to quickly change color, even when they are dying. In order to allow guests to witness the color changes in real time as the fish perished, the Romans served the fish live. The fish was then eaten.