Is a Spadefish the Same Thing as an Angelfish?

November 1998

Spadefish are often found in large schools in shallow coastal waters around natural and artificial reefs.

The Atlantic spadefish is sometimes mistaken for an angelfish because of the shape of its fins. Spadefish and angelfish are members of two separate fish families: Ephippidae and Pomacanthidae.

The spadefish, or Chaetodipterus faber, is common off the coast of North Carolina and is often found schooling around the many shipwrecks along our shore. Because of its common presence, it is the official logo of the North Carolina Aquariums.

Spadefish are generally larger than angelfish. They can grow to 3 feet in length and weigh as much as 20 pounds. They have a reputation for tenaciousness and sportfishermen enjoy catching them. Two species are found in North America: the Atlantic and Pacific spadefish.

Young spadefish are entirely dark brown or black with white mottling. Adults are silvery with four to six black vertical bands on each side. Very large spadefish sometimes lack the dark stripes. Their deep, short body allows them to make quick and easy lateral movements in tight spaces such as shipwrecks.

Spadefish spawn in spring and summer. Small juveniles sometimes drift on their sides, mimicking floating debris as a means of protection from predators. Crustaceans and small encrusting invertebrates are favorite foods. Spadefish find these morsels around wrecks, buoys, pilings and hard bottoms. They also eat the tentacles of jellyfish.

The French angelfish is similar in body shape to the spadefish. It is generally found in warmer waters.

Angelfish are known as small to medium-sized fish. The gray angelfish is one of the largest, reaching 14 inches long. It may be one of the hardiest of the angelfish species, since it is no stranger to colder New England waters. Most angelfish prefer warmer tropical waters. Of the 74 known angelfish species, only six live in the Atlantic Ocean. Most species are found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Many angelfish are quite colorful, particularly juveniles, and are favorites of aquarists. The queen angelfish, found in waters off Bermuda, northeast Florida and the north Gulf of Mexico to Brazil, has a deep blue body with an orange spot on each scale. Its entire caudal fin is yellow to orange. Despite its brilliant color, the queen angelfish can blend  perfectly with its reef environment to avoid predators.

While spadefish feed on shellfish, many angelfish species prefer sponges. They are diurnal, which means they are most active during the daytime.