Hooking this striking bottom-dweller while halibut fishing near Elfin Cove, Alaska, is not unusual.
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The Red Irish Lord was dubbed the Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus in the early 1800s by the German Naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius and French Zoologist Georges Cuvier.
This name comes from the Ancient Greek words for "hemi" meaning half, and "lepis" meaning scale. This scientific name describes the distinct band of "half-scales" running along their back.
These fish are members of the Cottidae family, which includes over 275 species of sculpin.
Close up of the red Irish lord's "half-scales"
Appearance and Adaptation
The red Irish lord is a bottom-dwelling king of camouflage. They blend seamlessly into the sandy, rocky chaos of the ocean floor. With its mottled reds, browns, and even hints of yellow, the red Irish lord disappears into their kelp-rich habitats. Cirri on their chins further enhances their camouflage.
Size and Lifespan
Limited information is available about this species. From fishing data and small state-funded research, they can reach 20 inches in length, weigh upwards of two and a half pounds, and live to be about six years old.
These fish spend most of their life on the seafloor, hiding in rocky reefs and reproducing in shallow areas in the intertidal zone. The Red Irish lord fish typically inhabit waters around 160 feet deep. However, they can also survive in much deeper waters, exceeding 1,500 feet.
For more about their fantastic camouflage skills, check out this blog post from Oregon Marine Reserves.
These fish are ambush hunters. They hide and wait for unsuspecting crabs and small fish to cruise by, then... WHAM! Their surprisingly speedy jaws snap up the hapless creature, and the fish returns to its hiding spot.
The red Irish lord strikes faster than other sculpin, though it does not eat the speediest prey. This fascinating paper discusses how the head and jaw shape of the red Irish lord and other sculpins affect jaw speed.
Male red Irish lords are known for their nesting behavior. They select and prepare a suitable area on the ocean floor. Once ready, females lay their pinkish-purple eggs.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the red Irish lord's reproductive behavior is that both males and females play a role in guarding the nest. After fertilization, they protect the eggs and keep them aerated and clean. This parental care is crucial for the survival of their offspring.
These fish require delicate handling when in captivity. This interview with a fish surgeon explains how they saved an egg-bound red Irish lord at the Seattle Aquarium.
Species and Varieties
Brown Irish lord (Hemilepidotus spinosus)
These fish have a slightly smaller range than the red Irish lord. We sometimes find them south of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. They can live at depths of over 2,000 ft.
Its coloration, a mottled pattern of various shades of brown, is excellent camouflage against the rocky ocean floor. This adaptation aids its ambush predation strategy, similar to the Red Irish lord.
Yellow Irish lord (Hemilepidotus jordani)
Even less is known about the yellow Irish lord than the red. They live in the northern Pacific Ocean at depths of 1,000 to 2,000 feet. The longest-lived among the species can live up to 30 years and grow large enough to eat other fish.
Buffalo Sculpin (Enophrys bison)
The buffalo sculpin gets its name from its bulky body, large head, and menacing face spines. They are often mottled with shades of brown, green, and red, helping them expertly camouflage against rocky seafloor.
Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)
Cabezon are voracious predators, using their considerable mouths to ambush fish, crabs, and anything that fits. The largest species can grow over three feet and weigh 25 pounds. They inhabit the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to Baja California.
The red Irish lord, while an ambush predator itself, occasionally falls prey to larger fish species like lingcod, Pacific halibut, and rockfish. Additionally, marine mammals like harbor seals and land otters are known to target the red Irish lord.
Are Irish lord fish poisonous?
Irish lords are not poisonous to consume. They might be considered a less desirable catch in some areas, but the flesh is perfectly safe to eat. The real concern with Irish lords lies in their spines. Though not deadly or seriously harmful, they can deliver a painful sting.
Are Irish lord fish edible?
While Irish lords aren't precisely known as gourmet seafood, the answer is yes; they are edible! Opinions vary, but Irish lord flesh is mild with a firm texture, similar to rockfish.
Commercial fisheries generally don't target Irish lords. They're usually considered "bycatch". Some anglers do enjoy keeping and eating Irish lords. Check your local regulations to ensure they are in season and legal to retain.
Where do Irish lord fish get their name?
The name "Irish lord" likely refers to their somewhat comical appearance – bulky heads, large pectoral fins, and a stout body shape perhaps perceived as pompous or lord-like. It's important to note that these fish have no connection to Ireland.