FISH FACTS: Brown Maori cod

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Image: Dr Ben Diggles

THE Brown Maori Cod (Epinephelus undulatostriatus), also known as the scribbled rock cod or Maori grouper, is a temperate reef dwelling species from the family Serranidae. Given their common name, readers might be forgiven if they thought this species originated from New Zealand waters.

This is not the case, however, and in fact E. undulatostriatus, is endemic to Australia, being found only along the east coast ranging from southern Queensland (Capricorn Bunker Group off Gladstone) to around Batemans Bay in southern New South Wales.

Instead, Maori cods are so named because of the attractive patterns of lines on their heads and the numerous small fine lines and spots on their flanks. These distinctive patterns evidently reminded early settlers and scientists of the tattoos found on Maori warriors, and over the years the name they gave the fish stuck.

This uniquely Australian species was first recorded from Port Jackson, Sydney in the 1860s, and today is commonly encountered by anglers fishing the bottom over rocky reefs both inshore and offshore to depths of around 80 metres. One stray fish was even recorded from Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, where its identity was easily recognised by virtue of its distinctive brownish orange colour, highlighted with beautiful yellow tips to the fins.

Colouration does vary as the fish grows, with juveniles having broad creamy stripes on the side of the body and a wide black stripe along the dorsal fin base. As they grow, older fish become a darker brown colour, and the flanks become covered in many fine lines of small yellow/orange dots.

Unlike other groupers that occur along the east coast, Maori rock cod are a relatively small species, reaching around 60cm long and 5.5kg and are an excellent table fish. They are active predators, feeding on crabs, shrimp and other fishes and will swim a fair way off the bottom to take well-presented baits or lures (particularly soft plastics).

There is a second Aussie cod with a kiwi name, called the blue maori, (Epinephelus cyanopodus). Also known as speckled blue grouper, Hoedts cod or purple rock cod, this species was originally described from China in 1846, but has since been recorded with a widespread distribution throughout the western Pacific from Japan through south-east Asia down to central NSW and Lord Howe Island (but again, not NZ!).

Adult blue Maoris are usually pale bluish grey, covered with small black dots and with black tips on the pelvic and tail fins. The juveniles of this species have yellow fins and body, but only in their first year of life.

Unlike the brown maori cod, the blue maori is mainly a tropical species restricted to coral reefs where it is often encountered swimming several meters above hard coral bottom and rubble to depths of 150 metres.

This species is the larger of the two maoris, growing to over 120cm and 17kg. Like other groupers, the blue maori feeds mainly on other fishes, crabs and various other small crustaceans, but unlike most other groupers, it is known to be a particularly active feeder at night.

Precious little is known about the biology of both species, except that they are both likely to be slow growing and long lived. Like other groupers, both are also likely to be hermaphrodites, maturing first as females then changing sex into males later in life.

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