The Complete Mediterranean Fish Species Identification Guide

The Mediterranean is famous for its warm climate, clear blue seas, and diversity of marine life.

Every year, it attracts “almost a third of the world’s international travelers,” luring them in with the promise of a beach holiday par excellence.

While fish aren’t that keen on sunbathing, they are attracted to the Mediterranean’s clear waters, gentle currents, and abundance of potential food sources.

Stretching from southwest Europe to western Asia and North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea is one of the most sheltered oceans on our planet. It’s almost completely surrounded by land, creating a safe haven in which fish can thrive.

Whether you’re heading to the Mediterranean to soak up the sun, explore its underwater world, or simply feast on some of the intriguing species that live there, summer is by far the best time to visit.

The seas are alive with fish during the warmer seasons, even though the combined effects of climate change and overfishing are taking their toll on the resident populations. 

Over the past half-century, Mediterranean fish populations have fallen by “more than a third,” leaving some species endangered. There is a silver lining to this cloud, however.

Where some fish populations have declined, other rarer species have started to thrive.

Keep reading to find out what fish you’re most likely to encounter in the Mediterranean, whether that’s face-to-face on a scuba diving trip or staring up at you from a mouth-watering plate of local delicacies.  

The 30 Most Common Fish in the Mediterranean Sea

The 30 Most Common Fish in the Mediterranean Sea

#1 Rainbow Wrasse

You won’t find rainbow wrasse on the local restaurant menus even though it’s abundant along the coastline.

Rainbow wrasse is edible fish, but they have limited commercial demand. As a result, they are left alone to thrive in the shallow waters of the Mediterranean coastline.

This solitary fish reacts similarly to danger like the ostrich, but instead of just burying its head in the sand, it buries its entire body.

Another curious feature of the rainbow wrasse is that it’s hermaphroditic and can change sex whenever needed.

When it performs this sex change, it also changes color, developing “an orange stripe pattern with a prominent red dot on the dorsal fin.”

#2 Mediterranean Sea Bass

The Mediterranean sea bass is one of the most common mediterranean sea fish.

Also known as Branzino, or European sea bass, the Mediterranean sea bass is a tasty fish you’ll often find in restaurants throughout the Mediterranean region.

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Mediterranean Sea Bass

It has a mild flavor, moist, buttery flesh, and a subtle sweetness similar to cod. An excellent choice for those that don’t particularly like a very fishy flavor, sea bass is traditionally served grilled and flavored with lemon juice, oregano, and garlic.

If you’re lucky enough to find sea bass at one of the local fish markets, be prepared to pay top dollar for this sought-after species.

Farmed sea bass are cheaper than wild-caught ones, but they still carry a price tag of around $80 per fish!

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#3 Atlantic Bonito

Despite its name, the Atlantic bonito is native to the Mediterranean Sea, although it can also be found in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea.

This mackerel-like fish species is one of the fastest fish in the ocean, reaching speeds of up to 40kph. As a result, it is highly revered as a game fish and plays an important role in commercial fishing operations.

Atlantic Bonito

Although you’re unlikely to encounter it on a reef dive, if you did, you’d find it easy to identify by its prominent sail-fin and dark stripes.

Atlantic bonito is a fatty fish that tastes like a cross between mackerel and tuna. It has “an oilier, fattier flavor” that lends it to being paired with strong flavors.

Traditionally served either grilled or baked, it’s also become a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, in the form of bonito flakes.

#4 Flying Fish

One of the most unusual of the Mediterranean fish species, the flying fish, has acquired the ability to fly, apparently to avoid its many predators.

Flying Fish

With a torpedo-like body and oversized pectoral fins, the flying fish swims at nearly 60 kph before launching itself out of the water and “flying” up to 655 feet.

You won’t often find flying fish on the menu, but they are nevertheless delicious to eat. Their moist flesh is slightly oily and tastes a little like sardines.

#5 Mediterranean Swordfish

The Mediterranean swordfish is one of the larger Mediterranean fish species and one of the most endangered.

Fishermen have targeted these migratory fish since ancient times. This relentless harvesting has taken a toll on the swordfish population and the WWF now believes we’re “catching twice the sustainable level of swordfish.”

Mediterranean Swordfish

Despite that, the demand for swordfish remains so high that some fishermen are willing to substitute it with other species.

study conducted by the University of Catania in Sicily in 2019 “found that 15% of the samples of swordfish it analyzed contained traces of other seafood.”

#6 European Anchovy

The European anchovy is another of the most common mediterranean sea fish and one that’s recently been found to play an important role in the ocean’s ecosystem.

Researchers at the University of Southampton in England found that when anchovies spawn, they get so frisky that they cause “the Earth’s waters to move.”

European Anchovy

Their frantic activity causes the different layers of the ocean to swirl together, circulating vital nutrients and redistributing the temperature of the water.

When they’re not busy mating, European anchovies make excellent eating! These tiny swimmers pack a serious salty punch! If you visit the Mediterranean, you’ll find anchovies fried, cured, or marinated at nearly every deli and bar you visit.

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#7 Ocean Sunfish

The Ocean Sunfish is one of the largest fish in the Mediterranean and one of the strangest to look at.

As it’s evolved, the Ocean Sunfish has lost its tail, replacing it with a “lumpy pseudotail” known as the clavus.

The average sunfish weighs around 2,000 pounds and measures approximately 5 feet long.

Ocean Sunfish

So, as you can imagine, hauling one of these beasts out of the ocean is no mean feat, which is why you’re more likely to see them while diving rather than dining.

As their name suggests, Ocean Sunfish spend much of their time basking at the water’s surface, a habit that means they’re often mistaken for sharks!

Fortunately, Ocean Sunfish are docile creatures that only threaten humans if they leap into your boat!

#8 Red Mullet

The red mullet is a type of goatfish, a species “characterized by two chin barbels” that the fish use to locate food in the sandy sea beds.

Red mullet has long been appreciated for its mild flavor which the Roman naturalist Pliny compared to that of the oyster.

Red Mullet

Although the population of red mullets has been under threat in the past, it’s becoming increasingly common.

Best served either grilled or pan-fried, the flavor of red mullet can be enhanced with traditional Mediterranean ingredients, such as basil, fennel, olive oil, and tomatoes.

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#9 Mediterranean Parrotfish

One of the most beautiful fish in the Mediterranean, the parrotfish is easy to identify.

The female parrotfish has a blue body with vibrant red and yellow stripes, while the male is a little less flashy.

As popular amongst scuba divers as they are among gastronomists, parrotfish are often found in shallow waters close to the Mediterranean’s rocky shoreline.

Mediterranean Parrotfish

Parrotfish are as brightly colored as their namesakes, and they have similarly powerful beaks which they use to chew algae off the rocky reefs.

While parrotfish doesn’t usually feature in traditional Mediterranean dishes, you will sometimes find it at a local restaurant, usually served as a whole fish accompanied by roasted vegetables.

#10 Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Bluefin tuna were once common in the Mediterranean, but overfishing has caused their numbers to decline alarmingly.

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Bluefin tuna disappeared from the Black Sea in the 1980s, and the population has yet to recover. It’s also the most endangered species of tuna in the Atlantic Ocean.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Much loved by dolphins and humans alike, the Bluefin tuna is now critically endangered.

Like all marine creatures, Atlantic Bluefin tuna have a vital role to play in the ecosystem. Without them, “the populations and lives of many other sea creatures will be impacted.” 

In other words, even if a tuna dish is utterly mouth-watering, it would be more ethical to opt for a more sustainable choice.

#11 Gilthead Sea Bream

One of the most common Mediterranean sea fish, the gilthead sea bream, is one of the most highly regarded of all the sea breams.

Sometimes referred to as the Royal Bream, the gilthead is said to have been sacred to the Greek goddess of beauty and sexual love.

Gilthead Sea Bream

This species of sea bream has a high tolerance for varying salinity levels and are often found in brackish water and around river estuaries.

In addition to being found in the wild, gilthead sea bream are also farmed extensively. Their widespread availability makes them a common feature of many Mediterranean dishes.

Gilthead sea bream are especially popular in Greece and Itlay, where they are commonly served either oven-baked or grilled over hot coals.

#12 Red Porgy

This pretty pink fish is often caught on rod and line but is also farmed throughout the Mediterranean.

Also known as the common seabream, wild red porgy is highly sought after and, as such, carries a higher price point than commercially farmed fish.

Red Porgy

Although the meat of the red porgy is white and tender, the abundance of tiny bones makes it a difficult fish to fillet. If prepared properly it’s a delicious fish that takes a little like a snapper.

Grilled porgy is a classic Greek dish, while Italians more commonly serve it baked, roasted, or used to create a flavourful fish soup.

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#13 European Hake

European hake are carnivorous fish that prey mainly on herring and mackerel. It’s often caught by commercial fishing boats targeting those same prey species.

Although a ferocious predator itself, the European hake is also heavily preyed upon by dolphins and dogfish sharks.

European Hake

With its big head and sharp teeth, it’s not the most attractive fish in the Mediterranean, but it is one of the tastiest.

It’s a meaty fish similar to cod and provides a tasty yet sustainable alternative to the over-fished Atlantic cod.

#14 Atlantic Chub Mackerel

Mackerel are found throughout the Mediterranean and in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, and the Black Sea.

Mackerel is a popular fish favored by health-conscious consumers. This healthy fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is an excellent source of essential vitamins.

Atlantic Chub Mackerel

However, it’s a slightly oily fish that spoils easily so was historically cured or smoked to extend its shelf life.

This oily fish is eaten worldwide and is particularly popular in Japan where it is “cured with salt and vinegar to make a type of sushi known as saba-zushi.”

#15 Sardine

Sardines are plentiful in the Mediterranean and are believed to get their name from the Italian island of Sardinia where they were once abundant.

These days, you’ll struggle to find a sardine on Sardinia, even though they are commonly served at almost every taverna in the Mediterranean.

Sardines

Sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s fish,” sardines have been traditionally affordable fish that remains comparatively cheap. Since the Norwegians invented the sardine can a few hundred years ago, they’ve been shipped worldwide.

Tinned sardines can’t compare to the salted Kalloni sardines served on the Greek island of Lesvos. When cured with salt, these small fish become light, fluffy, and full of flavor.

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#16 Flathead Grey Mullet

While the roe, or fish eggs, are more commonly consumed than the fish itself, on Sardinia, flathead grey mullet have replaced sardines as the island’s signature dish.

Salted and cured, flathead mullets are transformed into a delicacy known as Bottarga or Butariga.

Flathead Grey Mullet

Flathead grey mullets can tolerate varying levels of salinity that often enter rivers and estuaries.

These fish usually travel together in small schools, feeding on zooplankton in marine environments and algae in fresh water.

While you won’t necessarily find grey mullet on the menu in the Mediterranean, it’s a specialty of seafood restaurants in northwest Florida and Alabama, where it’s commonly served fried.

#17 Blue-spotted Cornetfish

This eel-like fish is one of the most common mediterranean sea fish but doesn’t really belong in this environment at all.

This invasive species is something of a newcomer to the area but one of its most successful and popular invaders.

Blue-spotted Cornetfish

Feeding on small fish and crustaceans, the blue-spotted cornetfish causes little damage to the indigenous flora and fauna. But, at the same time, it’s of little commercial value and rarely eaten in any form.

Blue-spotted cornetfish are most commonly harvested to make fishmeal for animal feed.

#18 Saddled Sea Bream

The saddled sea bream is a common fish worldwide and popular among sports fishermen like myself.

Also known as blacktail, it’s one of the tastiest fish you’ll find in the Mediterranean.

Saddled Sea Bream

Easily identified by the black spot on its tail, saddled sea bream are common in shallow, near-shore waters and are frequently seen by snorkelers and scuba divers.

This type of sea bream is most often served charcoal grilled or included in fish soup.

#19 Dusky Grouper

These common fishes are found on rocky reefs throughout the Mediterranean Sea, the western Indian Ocean, and the eastern and south-western Atlantic Ocean.

This carnivorous species can be seen territorially guarding their section of coral reef as they hunt for small fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Dusky Grouper

Unfortunately, the population of Dusky Grouper is exploited in many Mediterranean countries, including Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey. As a result, the population has declined alarmingly.

Rather than looking for this fish in a restaurant or taverna, why not take to the water and see if you can spot it in its natural habitat?  

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#20 Red Scorpionfish

Usually found in underwater caves on rocky or coral reefs, the red scorpionfish has a beautiful coloration that contrasts with its less attractive pug face and lumpy body.

While encountering one underwater can be an interesting experience, it’s not a hands-on affair as the scorpionfish has venomous dorsal spines that, when touched, cause excruciating pain.

Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Encountering a red scorpionfish on your plate is a much safer and more rewarding experience than seeing one in the sea.

It has a taste and texture similar to lobster and is often served oven-baked with tomato sauce and pasta.

#21 Monkfish

Just as sardines as the poor man’s fish, monkfish are the poor man’s lobster. With its large mouth and flat body, it’s not particularly pleasant to look at but it’s one of the tastiest fish I’ve ever eaten.

Monkfish

Also known as anglerfish, monkfish are bottom-dwellers that rely on ambush for hunting. Using a light-emitting lure at the end of their dorsal spines, they entice other fish towards their large mouths before swallowing them whole.

The tail of the monkfish contains the most meat and is usually filleted and then fried. The ugly head of the monkfish is used to make soups while the body is often stuffed and baked.

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#22 Picarel

Similar to both the sardine and anchovy, picarel are small fish that inhabit shoals throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Usually found in waters less than 550 feet deep, it frequents muddy seabeds and seagrass meadows where it hunts for tiny organisms known as zooplankton.

Picarel fish
Picarel Fish – Credit to Charles d’Orbigny via  CC0 License

Picarel is one of the most commonly caught fish in Cyprus, where they are usually battered and fried before being eaten whole. Picarel is also popular in parts of southern Italy, Greece, and Dalmatia.

#23 Common Dentex

The common dentex is a large fish whose superior taste makes it a highly sought-after delicacy. Unfortunately, it also has a high price point to reflect that popularity.

Despite that, the common dentex “holds an important place as a fishery resource for both professional and recreational fishing.”

 Common Dentex

Often referred to as Tsar fish, it has a distinctive taste and aroma that makes it delicious regardless of how it’s prepared, although it’s best eaten grilled with olive oil and a dash of lemon juice.

The common dentex is sometimes confused with the snapper due to its sharp teeth and tendency to bite!

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#24 Common Pandora

Another member of the sea bream family, the common pandora, is a popular food fish throughout the Mediterranean.

The common pandora can be distinguished from other sea breams by its silvery body and pink tinge along the back.

Common Pandora

It’s not as popular as some of the other Mediterranean fish species but is often found at restaurants and tavernas in the form of soups and stews.

#25 Painted Comber

This colorful fish is more frequently found in the ocean than on the menu and is easily identified by its stripey body and the wavy blue lines that decorate its head.

Painted Comber

Most commonly seen hunting at dusk, the painted comber is a “territorial ambush hunter” that preys on other fish, worms, and crustaceans.

Although pleasant enough to eat, the painted comber isn’t a particularly popular food fish. In fact, I could only find one recipe for it, which involved combining it with vegetables and Greek herbs before wrapping it in parchment paper and baking it.

#26 European Conger

European congers can reach up to seven feet long and weigh over 150lb, making them the largest eel species in the world.

Unfortunately, they’re not only big but also notoriously aggressive and often attack and bite divers who get too close.

European Conger

European congers spend most of their time hiding away in holes, known as eel pits. They usually emerge only at night when they go on the hunt for crustaceans, fish, and squid.

The European conger has firm flesh and a strong “almost pork-like” flavor. Its strong flavor goes well with garlic, smoked paprika, and bacon, and the conger eel is often used to make a Portuguese fish stew known as Caldeirada.

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#27 Atlantic Spotted Flounder

These solitary carnivores aren’t particularly easy to spot as they hide in the soft sediment of the sea floor. They have flat bodies and eyes that protrude from the top side of their bodies.

Very little is known about the status of the Atlantic spotted flounder, although other flounder species have been heavily over-fished.

Aatlantic Spotted Flounder

Flounder isn’t a particularly popular food fish in the Mediterranean, despite being a mild-tasting white with a delicate texture.

This lack of interest has enabled the population in the Mediterranean to expand and there are now more Atlantic Spotted Flounders in the Mediterranean Sea than in their native Atlantic Ocean.

#28 Flying Gurnard

Flying gurnards are spectacular fish to observe, spreading their semi-transparent pectoral fins like a pair of brightly colored wings.

They use their large pectoral fins to frighten off potential predators and double up as a pair of “legs” that the gurnard uses to “walk” along the ocean floor.

Flying Gurnard

As fascinating and eye-catching as they are, flying gurnards rarely end up on the dinner plate, except in Senegal, where they are often served as chicken – perhaps because they appear to have wings!

Although they have wings, flying gurnards don’t fly particularly well and certainly can’t compete with the flying fish of the Mediterranean.

Some sources claim the gurnard can “glide above the surface” for a brief period, but they can’t sustain that flight for as long as the true flying fish.

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Flying gurnards are solitary fish that forage for food on the bottom of the ocean, descending to depths of around 330 feet deep. Their carnivorous diet consists of bottom-dwelling fish, worms, and small crustaceans such as shrimp.

#29 Leerfish

Also known as Garrick, the leer fish is a fast, aggressive species that preys on other fish, including the saddled sea bream. Although they aren’t particularly popular amongst gastronomists, sports fishermen love them.

Mostly caught for the challenge rather than the meal, many fishermen throw back the leer fish they catch because they’re an endangered species.

Leerfish or Garrick (Lichia Amia)
Leerfish or Garrick (Lichia Amia) – Credit to Frederick Hermanus Van der Bank Copyrighted free use

Native to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the leer fish is also found off the coast of eastern South Africa.

Growing to around 5 feet long and weighing up to 70 lbs, it’s a large fish that gives the avid angler a good fight.

While you probably won’t find it on the menu, it’s a “real delight on the plate,” especially when served as carpaccio.

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#30 White Grouper

Found throughout the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, the white grouper is actually “greenish-bronze” in color. This allows them to blend in with their environment, which is crucial when you’re an ambush predator.

White grouper feed primarily on small fish and crustaceans but, as opportunist feeders, they’ll eat pretty much anything they can fit into their mouths.

White Grouper

The white grouper belongs to the same family as sea bass and, like the bass, is highly prized for its meaty flesh and mild taste.

Although a relatively common Mediterranean sea fish, it’s one of the most expensive to consume. That’s not bad as the white grouper has a near-threatened status that could become more serious if we continue to target the species for food.

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FAQ

What is the Most Common Fish in the Mediterranean?

The Mediterranean sea bass is arguably the most common fish in the Mediterranean, although there is little available evidence to support this.

There are approximately 10,000 species of European or Mediterranean sea bass in the world, and the population is stable. There are currently no known threats to this population aside from overfishing.

The most important fish in the Mediterranean is the bluefin tuna, and not just because of its value. The bluefin tuna is one of the region’s top predators and, as such, it helps to maintain a balance in the food chain.

What is the Largest Fish in the Mediterranean?

At nearly 30 feet long and weighing up to 10,000 lbs, the basking shark is not only the largest fish in the Mediterranean, it’s the second-largest in the world.

Only the blue whale gets bigger than the basking shark.

What Kind of Fish is Caught in the Mediterranean?

With around 80,000 fishing boats operating in the waters of the Mediterranean, the amount of fish caught is truly staggering. The main target species are small pelagic fishes like anchovy and sardine.

Other fish “common to the traditional Mediterranean Diet” include flounder, mackerel, tuna, sea bass, and sardine.

Is there Salmon in the Mediterranean?

According to Wikipedia, there are 712 different species of fish in the Mediterranean sea.

Among these are two members of the Salmonidae family: the Salmo salar, or Atlantic salmon, and the brown trout.

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Despite that claim, other sources suggest that Atlantic Salmon are only found in rivers in the northern parts of Spain and Portugal.

Rather than flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, these rivers feed into either the North Atlantic Ocean or the Cantabrian Sea.

Conclusion

The Mediterranean Sea is teeming with fish, from the tiny anchovy to the giant basking shark.

Visitors flock to the Mediterranean to soak up the sun and enjoy the gentle waves and warm sea temperatures. It’s not just the climate and the scenery that draws tourists to the area – it’s also the food.

The Mediterranean is famous for its delicious seafood and nearly every restaurant and taverna has its specialty seafood dishes, be it whole marinated anchovy or stuffed scorpionfish.

While the Mediterranean is home to over 700 different fish species, that may not be the case in a few years’ time.

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According to the nonprofit ocean conservation, Oceana, “90 percent of Mediterranean fish populations are now harvested in excess of science-based recommendations.”

Some of the most common Mediterranean fish species we’ve familiarized ourselves with in this article are in even more danger. The European hake, red mullet, and anglerfish or monkfish are, Oceana says, “exploited 10 times over suggested limits.”

Although there are many delicious fish in the sea, some of them are better off left there rather than sacrificed to satisfy the hunger of humans.

Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.

4 thoughts on “The Complete Mediterranean Fish Species Identification Guide”

  1. on the socrpeonfish section you have a picture of a lionfish. I have nice pictures of sorpeonfish I made myself if you like to have one.

    Reply
  2. The pictures on this website are not accurate at all. The rainbow wrasse picture is actually a surge wrasse and the scorpionfish is actually a lion fish.

    Reply
  3. What about that pretty small blue fish with a dark spot on the junction at the tail? What is it called? They are so pretty.

    Reply

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