Blackfish, Chinner

Tautoga onitis

Color:       Males and older fish are uniformly olive green, dark chocolate, or back in color with irregular mottling along the side. Females and young tautog are paler in color with large mousy brown and grey mottling on the sides.

Size:   Up to 22 inches long.

Habitat:     Open water near rocky shores, pier docks, breakwaters, mussel beds; juveniles hear eelgrass and seaweed beds, rock and cobble bottoms

Seasonal Appearance:          All year, most commonly seen from April through November

Sensitivity to Human Action







Distinguishing Features and Behaviors:

            Tautog are heavy, stout fish with a broad tail and a high, arched head. They are the northern relative of the family of wrasses, common in tropical waters. Tautog are related to, and often confused with, another species of wrasse known as the cunner. The tautog has a blunt snout with a small mouth, thick lips, and strong conical teeth. They have a scaleless cheek region that is smooth to the tough. Their dorsal fin extends the length of the back and has sharp spines.

            Tautog become blacker in color as they grow older, and their coloring also varies depending on the local bottom habitat. The distinguishing feature of the adult make tautog is the large protruding forehead. The mature males are often referred to as “chinners” because of the white patch on the chin.

            Tautog feed entirely on invertebrates, including crabs, mussels, mollusks, shrimp, amphipods, and sea worms, using their strong back teeth to crush any hard shells. These fish are not active swimmers, and when not feeding, they often gather in groups under the safety of a ledge or hole in the rocks, sometimes lying on their sides. Although tautog are active during the day, they remain close to cover. At night, they are quiet and inactive, hiding form predators.

            Juvenile tautog stay near the sites where they were hatched, and are frequently found in eelgrass beds where invertebrates are abundant. The adults gather around rocky bottoms, ledges, pilings, and submerged wrecks.

Relationship to People:

            Although they are sometimes sold commercially, most tautog are caught recreationally. Taken by rod, reel, and spear from May through October, tautog are an important sport fish in Narragansett Bay. There is a “live fish” fishery in Rhode Island where living adult tautog are captured for restaurants, and customers can select live fresh fish from the tanks.

            Increased pressure by recreational and commercial gill-net fisheries has resulted in serious decline of stocks. In addition, tautog grow slowly, taking a long time to reach sexual maturity. This makes it difficult for the stocks to rebound quickly when overfished. In many states, including Rhode Island, a minimum size limit for recreational fishing has been imposed to help maintain the population.