Red Bandfish

Red Bandifsh

  • Scientific name: Cepola macrophthalma
  • Also known as: Ribbonfish, Red Snakefish, Red Ribbandfish
  • Size: Up to 80cm, although typically around 30cm
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: 7oz 2dr (200 grams)
  • IUCN Status
    • Worldwide: LC (Least Concern)
    • Europe: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Only large populations are around the south west of England and Ireland. Smaller populations may be found elsewhere around the British Isles.
  • Feeds on: Red bandfish feed mostly on plankton and microscopic sea creatures, although will take small crustaceans and other sea creatures and occasionally small fish.
  • Description: Eel-like fish with an elongated and very slender tapering body. Large eyes and mouth is full of small, sharp teeth. A long dorsal fin runs the entire length of the back. The anal fin is only slightly shorter than the dorsal fin. The body terminates in a very small tail fin. Colour is a reddish to pink or occasionally orange on the upper flanks, fading to a paler pinkish on the underside.

Red bandfish is a species of fish which is present mostly around the south and west of the British Isles. It is a somewhat mysterious species and many aspects of the red bandfish’s life cycle are poorly understood by the marine science community. The red bandfish is a very rare catch for shore anglers, although there is a shore caught British record for this species.


Red Bandfish Distribution
Red Bandfish Distribution

The red bandfish is not widely distributed throughout the UK with the only concentrated populations being off the coast of south west England and parts of Ireland, although it has been observed occasionally as far north as Scotland, although only in very small numbers. Red bandfish are absent from the colder Scandinavian and Nordic waters and from the Baltic Sea but are found off the coast of Portugal, off the Atlantic coasts of Spain and France and throughout the Mediterranean. Their range extends as the coasts of Mauritania in western Africa and they can also be found in the River Nile estuary in northern Egypt

Habitat, Feeding and Life Cycle

Red bandfish generally live in water between twenty and several hundred metres deep, and only over sandy or muddy seabeds. This is because they dig a vertical burrow in the seabed which can be up to a metre deep and then wriggle in tail first and live inside. Red bandfish can form large colonies of many thousands of burrows and feed by partially emerging from their burrows and capturing tiny crustaceans and other small sea creatures which pass by. They can also fully emerge from their home to swim in midwater and hunt for small fish, or feed on the seabed for marine worms and small creatures. Red bandfish can themselves be hunted by other, larger species and are an important part of the food chain in some parts of the world.

A population of around 14,000 red bandfish was discovered off the Isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel in the 1970s. Studying this group provided much of the information which allows us to understand the life cycle and behaviour of the red bandfish. However, Lundy population of red bandfish began to decline in number and had disappeared by the 1980s. The reasons for the red bandfish disappearing from this area have never been discovered but commercial fishing could not be blamed as the area was an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and all trawling and fixed net fishing was banned. A smaller population was re-discovered in the area in the late 1980s. This led to the theory that the red bandfish may undertake some form of migration, possibly to deeper water in the winter months, although this has yet to be confirmed and the life cycle of the red bandfish remains something of a mystery.

Commercial Value

Red Bandfish
Left, a 1657 Latin translation of Deipnosophistae, and right, red bandfish on sale at a fish market in Italy in 2019.

Red bandfish have been eaten by humans since ancient times. The Sicilian-born cook Mithaikos who was influential in Greece in the fifth century BC wrote a recipe for red bandfish in which he advised cooking the fish in olive oil and then adding cheese. This recipe survives due to being quoted in the famous text Deipnosophistae which was published in the third century AD, and is believed to be the oldest known recipe by a named author. While the red bandfish was once an important food fish its value has decreased and it is of only minor commercial importance in certain European countries today. Most commercial vessels catching fish for the UK market will discard any red bandfish caught as unwanted bycatch. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes this species as one of Least Concern on both a worldwide basis and within European waters.

Angling for Red Bandish

 Boat Caught Red Bandfish
A boat caught red bandfish.

Red bandfish are a rare fish around the coastline of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and any catch of this species from the shore is notable. The shore caught record currently stands at just over 7oz (200 grams) and was set in 2001, with a specimen which was caught in Scottish waters by G. Tipling. They are a slightly more common catch for anglers fishing in deeper water from a boat or kayak, and are usually caught on lures such as daylights meant for mackerel or pirks which are being used to catch larger species such as cod. Despite this species being caught by boat anglers, no British boat caught record appears to be listed.