Exploring the Sanctuary header graphic
Exploring the Sanctuary subheader graphic

Reef Fish

Hawai‘i’s coral reefs are home to more than 700 species of fish.  Nearly one-quarter of these are found only in Hawai‘i.  Reef fishes have very colorful names and appearances.  There are surgeons, tangs, and angelfishes, along with puffers, sea basses, and moray eels.

Convict Tang fish
Donna Loudons


There are four main habitats for Hawaiian reef fishes: the surge zone, the shallow reef, the deeper reef, and the dropoff zone.  The turbulent surge zone, where sea meets land on rocky shores, is home to swift, agile fishes like surgeons and damsels.  The calm shallow reef houses the majority of reef fishes and extends to a depth of 30 feet.  The deeper reef contains larger, predatory fishes.  Butterflyfishes and occasionally manta rays and sharks may be found in the dropoff zone, which is characterized by perpendicular sea walls. 


Reef fishes may feed on plankton, algae, invertebrates, crustaceans, starfish, and other fishes.  Planktivores, fishes that eat plankton, usually swim together in large schools and may be diurnal (active at day) or nocturnal (active at night). Piscivores, fishes that eat other fish, are most active during dawn and dusk when they are less visible to their prey.  Wrasses are the dentists of the fish community:  they feed on mucus and parasites on the skin of other fishes. 


The life cycle of most reef fishes has two stages: (1) the larval or pelagic stage, and (2) the sedentary or benthic stage.  In a typical pattern, eggs hatch into tiny larvae, which are carried far from the original spawning site by waves.  The larvae metamorphose into young adults of 8-200 mm.  The adult fish quickly find a reef and settle down. 

Hawai`i's State Fish

In 1984, Hawai‘i’s official state fish is the Picasso Triggerfish.  Its Hawaiian name, humuhumunukunukuapua’a, means “nose like a pig.”  In fact, triggerfishes are known to grunt like pigs if they are unkindly pulled out of the water.  They can swim backwards and forwards.  Their common name comes from the arrangement of their two dorsal spines:  The larger spine can be locked or released by the smaller one (the trigger).  This spine-locking mechanism allows triggerfishes to lodge themselves firmly in crevices where predators cannot harm or remove them. 

Humuhumunukunukuapuaa fish
Donna Loudons

For more information on reef fish, visit Ocean Encyclopedia and Marine Life Profiles at Waikiki Aquarium.


Makapuu Lighthouse graphic side bar
NOAA logo