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Diving beneath the surface of North America’s expansive waterways reveals a mesmerizing world teeming with life, beauty, and diversity – the realm of the fish. From the icy waters of Alaska to the warm currents of the Gulf of Mexico, the continent boasts an array of aquatic ecosystems that have nurtured an astounding variety of fish species. With over 1,000 recognized species and numerous yet-to-be-discovered inhabitants, the aquatic life of North America has captivated the imaginations of scientists, anglers, and nature enthusiasts alike.

Spanning the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, as well as numerous freshwater bodies, North America’s fish populations represent a tapestry of evolutionary adaptations, each shaped by the unique environments they call home. From the magnificent apex predators to the dainty and elusive species hidden amongst the aquatic plants, these underwater denizens contribute to the rich ecological tapestry of the continent.

In this article, we embark on an expedition through the diverse world of North American fish. We will discover the remarkable characteristics, behaviors, and ecological roles that define these aquatic creatures. From the mightiest of salmon that defy the odds to return to their natal streams, to the mysterious eels that undertake incredible migrations across vast distances, the stories of these fish are as captivating as the waters they inhabit.

Beyond their ecological significance, fish have played an integral role in the cultural, economic, and historical fabric of North America. Indigenous communities have revered fish as symbols of resilience and sustenance for millennia. Settlers and explorers, too, have relied upon these aquatic treasures for survival and prosperity.

Alewife

Alewife

The alewife is a small, silvery fish that is native to North America. It is an anadromous species, meaning it migrates from the ocean to freshwater rivers and lakes to spawn. Alewives are an important prey species for larger fish and birds.

American Shad

American Shad

American shad is a species of fish that is native to the east coast of North America. They are known for their migratory behavior, as they spawn in freshwater rivers but spend most of their adult lives in the ocean. American shad are prized by anglers for their fighting ability and are also commercially harvested for their flavorful flesh.

CC BY 3.0
J.M.M CC BY 3.0

Amia Ocellicauda

Amia ocellicauda, also known as the spottail shiner, is a small fish species found in North America. It is characterized by its distinctive dark spot at the base of its tail. The spottail shiner inhabits freshwater lakes and streams and feeds on small invertebrates. It is an important forage fish for larger predatory species.

Astyanax Argentatus

Astyanax Argentatus

Astyanax argentatus, also known as the silvery tetra, is a freshwater fish species found in North America. It has a slender body and silver scales, giving it a striking appearance. Silvery tetras are popular among aquarium enthusiasts for their peaceful nature and schooling behavior.

Aulorhynchus_flavidus_1 (1)

Aulorhynchus

Aulorhynchus is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the eastern silvery minnow. These small fish are native to North America and are typically found in rivers and streams. Eastern silvery minnows are important indicators of water quality and are often used in scientific studies to assess the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Awaous_banana_(S1182)_0081_(42046747852)
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center – Awaous banana_(S1182)_0081 CC BY 2.0

Awaous Banana

Awaous banana, also known as the mountain mullet, is a species of fish found in freshwater rivers and streams in North America. They are known for their elongated body shape and bright yellow coloration. Mountain mullets are bottom-dwelling fish that feed on small invertebrates and algae.

barcheek pipefish

Barcheek Pipefish

Barcheek pipefish, also known as the flagtail pipefish, is a small fish species found along the coastlines of North America. They have a long, slender body with a distinctive barcheek pattern near their head. These pipefish are notable for their unique breeding behavior, as males carry the developing eggs in a pouch until they hatch.

Halichoeres_poeyi_-_pone.0010676.g120
Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.

Blackear Wrasse

Blackear wrasse, also known as the bluehead wrasse, is a colorful fish species found in the coastal waters of North America. They have a vibrant blue head and a black spot near their tail. Blackear wrasses are commonly encountered by snorkelers and divers, and they play an important role in reef ecosystems as cleaners of parasites.

Blue catfish

Blue Catfish

Blue catfish is a large freshwater fish species native to North America. It is known for its bluish-gray coloration and smooth skin. Blue catfish are highly valued by anglers for their size and strong fighting ability. They can reach impressive sizes and are popular targets for trophy fishing.

Blue sucker

Blue Sucker

Blue sucker, also known as the bluefin sucker, is a migratory fish species found in North America. They are characterized by their bluish-gray color and slender body shape. Blue suckers undertake long-distance migrations, moving between rivers and larger water bodies. They are considered a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss and overfishing.

bluefish

Bluefish

Bluefish is a predatory fish species found along the Atlantic coast of North America. They have a bluish-green coloration and sharp teeth. Bluefish are highly prized by recreational anglers for their aggressive nature and powerful strikes. They are known for their fast swimming speeds and make for exciting catches.

bonytail chub

Bonytail Chub

The Bonytail chub is a rare and endangered fish species found in the Colorado River basin in North America. They have a streamlined body and a distinctive bony tail fin. Bonytail chubs are highly adapted to life in swift-flowing rivers and are important indicators of the health of their aquatic habitats.

Bowfin

Bowfin

Bowfin, also known as dogfish, is a primitive fish species found in North America. They have a long, cylindrical body and are known for their bony scales and powerful jaws. Bowfins are voracious predators and can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions, allowing them to inhabit various freshwater habitats.

Brook stickleback

Brook Stickleback

Brook stickleback is a small fish species found in freshwater streams and rivers of North America. They have a spiny dorsal fin and a streamlined body. Brook sticklebacks are known for their elaborate courtship behavior, with males constructing nests and defending them to attract females for mating.

Bull trout

Bull Trout

Bull trout is a cold-water fish species native to North America. They are characterized by their large size and olive-green coloration with scattered spots. Bull trout inhabit clear, cold streams and lakes and are highly valued by anglers for their strong fighting ability. They are also an indicator species for water quality and ecosystem health.

California_roach_(Lavinia_symmetricus)_netted_in_Adobe_Creek_II_2011-07-31
Schmiebel CC BY-SA 3.0

California Roach

California roach, also known as the Sacramento roach, is a small fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a silver-colored body and are known for their resilience in various environmental conditions. California roach are important forage fish for larger predatory species and play a vital role in aquatic food webs.

Campostoma_anomalum
Fredlyfish4 CC BY-SA 3.0

Campostoma

Campostoma is a genus of small fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the stonerollers. They are found in North America and are typically found in freshwater rivers and streams. Stonerollers are known for their feeding behavior, where they roll small stones to disturb the streambed and expose invertebrates for feeding.

Carpiodes

Carpiodes

Carpiodes, commonly known as carpsuckers, are a group of fish species found in North America. They are characterized by their large, round mouths and elongated bodies. Carpsuckers primarily feed on invertebrates and detritus, and they play an important ecological role in maintaining the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Catostomidae
Brian Gratwicke CC BY 2.0

Catostomidae

Catostomidae is a family of fish commonly known as suckerfish or suckers. They are found throughout North America and are known for their fleshy lips and bottom-feeding habits. Suckers play an important ecological role by consuming algae, detritus, and invertebrates, helping to keep aquatic ecosystems clean.

Chrosomus
Terrapin83 CC BY 2.5

Chrosomus

Chrosomus is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as dace. They are found in North America and are typically found in freshwater rivers and streams. Dace are known for their vibrant colors and are popular among aquarium enthusiasts. They are also important components of aquatic ecosystems as prey for larger fish and birds.

Colorado Pikeminnow

Colorado Pikeminnow

Colorado pikeminnow, also known as the Colorado squawfish, is a large fish species found in the Colorado River basin in North America. They have a streamlined body and are known for their size and strength. Colorado pikeminnows are an endangered species and are the focus of conservation efforts to restore their populations.

Carp

Cyprinidae

Cyprinidae is a diverse family of fish commonly known as cyprinids or carp. They are found in various freshwater habitats across North America and are known for their adaptability and abundance. Cyprinids include a wide range of species, such as minnows, carps, and goldfish, and play important roles in aquatic ecosystems.

Carp

Cypriniformes

Cypriniformes is an order of freshwater fish that includes many species found in North America. This diverse group encompasses familiar fish families like Cyprinidae (carps and minnows) and Catostomidae (suckers). Cypriniformes exhibit a wide range of ecological adaptations and are known for their diversity and abundance in freshwater habitats.

Dorosoma

Dorosoma

Dorosoma is a genus of fish in the family Clupeidae, commonly known as shad. They are found in rivers and coastal waters of North America. Shad are anadromous fish, migrating from the ocean to freshwater rivers to spawn. They are valued by anglers for their sportfishing qualities and are also commercially harvested.

Mosquitofish

Eastern Mosquitofish

Eastern mosquitofish, also known as Gambusia, is a small fish species found in freshwater habitats of North America. They are known for their ability to consume mosquito larvae, making them effective natural pest controllers. Eastern mosquitofish are often introduced into water bodies to control mosquito populations.

Silver minnow

Eastern Silvery Minnow

Eastern silvery minnow, also known as the silver chub, is a small fish species native to eastern North America. They have a silvery body and are typically found in rivers and streams. Eastern silvery minnows play important roles in aquatic ecosystems as prey for larger fish and contribute to the overall biodiversity of freshwater habitats.

Striped surfperch

Embiotoca Lateralis

Embiotoca lateralis, commonly known as the striped surfperch, is a coastal fish species found along the Pacific coast of North America. They have distinctive black stripes on their sides and are known for their vibrant coloration. Striped surfperch are popular targets for anglers and are also appreciated for their beauty by divers and beachcombers.

Slender_chub_fish_erimystax_cahni

Erimystax

Erimystax is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as darters. They are found in North America and are typically found in freshwater streams and rivers. Darters are known for their vibrant coloration and unique habitat preferences. They are indicators of clean and well-oxygenated waters, as they are sensitive to pollution.

Erimyzon

Erimyzon

Erimyzon, commonly known as the creek chubsuckers, is a group of fish species found in North America. They are characterized by their elongated bodies and specialized mouths adapted for feeding on algae and small invertebrates. Creek chubsuckers play an important role in maintaining the health of freshwater ecosystems by controlling algae growth and nutrient cycling.

Fundulus Similis

Fundulus similis, commonly known as the Gulf killifish, is a small fish species found in the coastal waters of North America. They have a streamlined body and are known for their ability to tolerate a wide range of salinities. Gulf killifish play an important ecological role as prey for larger fish and birds in coastal habitats.

Gar

Gar

Gar is a group of fish species known for their elongated bodies and long snouts filled with sharp teeth. They are found in freshwater lakes and rivers across North America. Gar are highly adapted predators, capable of breathing both in water and air. They are ancient fish with a unique evolutionary history and are often considered living fossils.

green sturgeon

Green Sturgeon

Green sturgeon is a large, migratory fish species found on the west coast of North America. They have a distinctive greenish color and are known for their cartilaginous skeleton. Green sturgeon undertake long migrations, traveling between freshwater rivers and the ocean. They are a protected species due to their endangered status.

Mooneye

Hiodon Tergisus

Hiodon tergisus, commonly known as the mooneye, is a fish species found in freshwater rivers and lakes of North America. They have a silvery body and large eyes. Mooneye are popular targets for anglers and are known for their voracious feeding behavior, particularly during low-light periods.

Hybognathus

Hybognathus

Hybognathus is a genus of small fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as silvery minnows. They are found in rivers and streams of North America and are characterized by their silvery coloration and streamlined bodies. Silvery minnows play important ecological roles as prey for larger fish and as indicators of water quality. Some species within the genus, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, are considered endangered and are the focus of conservation efforts.

Northern_hogsucker_Hypentelium_nigricans

Hypentelium

Hypentelium, commonly known as the northern hogsucker, is a fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a unique mouth adapted for feeding on algae and small invertebrates by sucking and rasping. Northern hogsuckers play a vital role in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems by controlling algae growth and nutrient cycling.

ironcolor shiner

Ironcolor Shiner

Ironcolor shiner is a small fish species native to North America, typically found in clear, fast-flowing streams. They have a colorful body, with males displaying vibrant hues during the breeding season. Ironcolor shiners are important components of freshwater ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as a food source for larger fish.

Johnny Darter

Johnny Darter

The Johnny darter is a species of darter fish found in freshwater streams and rivers of North America. They have a slender body and are known for their striking coloration and elaborate courtship displays. Johnny darters are important indicators of water quality, as they are sensitive to pollution and habitat degradation.

Silverside

Labidesthes

Labidesthes is a genus of fish in the family Atherinopsidae, commonly known as the brook silversides. They are found in freshwater habitats of North America and are known for their silvery appearance. Brook silversides are highly adapted to life in swift-flowing streams and play important roles in the aquatic food web as both predators and prey.

Leopard shark

Leopard Shark

Leopard shark is a coastal fish species found along the Pacific coast of North America. They have a distinctive pattern of dark spots on their body, resembling leopard spots. Leopard sharks are highly adapted to a wide range of habitats and are known for their docile nature, making them popular attractions in public aquariums.

Agosia_chrysogaster
CC BY 4.0 nmoorhatch

Longfin Dace

Longfin dace is a small fish species found in freshwater streams and rivers of North America. They have elongated fins, giving them their distinctive name. Longfin dace are important components of aquatic ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as a food source for larger predatory fish.

Kriptolebias_marmoratus
CC BY-SA 3.0 Cardet co6cs

Mangrove Rivulus

Mangrove rivulus, also known as the mangrove killifish, is a unique fish species found in coastal areas of North America. They have the extraordinary ability to tolerate extreme changes in salinity and even survive out of water for extended periods by breathing air. Mangrove rivulus play an important ecological role in mangrove ecosystems.

Margariscus

Margariscus

Margariscus, commonly known as the freshwater goby, is a small fish species found in North America. They have a slender body and are typically found in freshwater rivers and streams. Freshwater gobies exhibit interesting behaviors, such as building nests and guarding their eggs.

Mountain sucker

Mountain Sucker

Mountain sucker is a fish species found in freshwater streams and rivers of North America, particularly in mountainous regions. They have a specialized mouth adapted for feeding on algae and detritus. Mountain suckers play important ecological roles in nutrient cycling and contribute to the overall health of aquatic ecosystems.

hardhead

Mylopharodon Conocephalus

Mylopharodon conocephalus, commonly known as the hardhead, is a fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a robust body and a protruding snout. Hardheads are known for their bottom-feeding habits and are important components of freshwater ecosystems.

Pacific_hagfish_Myxine

Myxine Limosa

Myxine limosa, commonly known as the Pacific hagfish, is a jawless fish species found along the Pacific coast of North America. They have a slimy and eel-like appearance and inhabit deep-sea environments. Pacific hagfish are scavengers, feeding on dead and decaying organisms on the ocean floor.

River Chub

Nocomis

Nocomis is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the redfin shiners. They are found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America and are known for their vibrant coloration, particularly the red color on their fins. Redfin shiners are important indicators of water quality and are sensitive to pollution.

Northern Cavefish

Northern Cavefish

The Northern cavefish is a unique fish species found in subterranean waters, such as caves and underground streams, in North America. They have adapted to life in complete darkness and have reduced eyes or are even blind. Northern cavefish exhibit fascinating adaptations to their extreme habitats.

Northern lamprey

Northern Lamprey

The Northern lamprey is a primitive fish species found in freshwater rivers and lakes of North America. They have a slender, eel-like body and a distinctive circular mouth with teeth-like structures. Northern lampreys are parasitic, attaching themselves to other fish to feed on their blood and body fluids. They play important ecological roles as both predators and indicators of water quality.

Northern Pipefish

Northern Pipefish

Northern pipefish is a fish species found along the coastlines of North America. They have a long, slender body and are closely related to seahorses. Northern pipefish are known for their unique reproductive behavior, with males carrying and brooding the developing eggs. They are often found in seagrass beds and other coastal habitats.

Northern redbelly dace

Northern Redbelly Dace

The Northern redbelly dace is a small fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a streamlined body and distinctive red coloration on their bellies. Northern redbelly dace are important indicators of clean water and are often used in research to assess water quality and ecological health.

Ocean Pout

Ocean Pout

The Ocean pout is a fish species found in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, including the coastal regions of North America. They have a elongated body and a unique ability to produce antifreeze proteins, allowing them to survive in icy waters. Ocean pouts are commercially harvested for their soft, white flesh.

Ophidion Josephi

Ophidion Josephi

Ophidion josephi, commonly known as the tubeshoulder, is a species of fish found in the coastal waters of North America. They have an elongated body and are known for their distinctive tubular extensions on their shoulders. Tubeshoulders are bottom-dwelling fish that feed on small invertebrates and play a role in coastal ecosystems.

Pacific lamprey

Pacific Lamprey

The Pacific lamprey is a jawless fish species found in the Pacific coastal waters of North America. They have a slender, eel-like body and a parasitic lifestyle, attaching themselves to other fish to feed on their blood and body fluids. Pacific lampreys are important for maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems and are culturally significant to some Indigenous communities.

Percopsidae

Percopsidae

Percopsidae is a family of fish commonly known as trout-perches. They are found in freshwater lakes and rivers of North America and are characterized by their elongated bodies and unique fin structures. Trout-perches are often associated with cold, clear waters and contribute to the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems.

Percopsidae

Percopsis Omiscomaycus

Percopsis omiscomaycus, commonly known as the sand roller or trout-perch, is a small fish species found in freshwater lakes and rivers of North America. They have a cylindrical body and are known for their ability to roll on sandy lake or river bottoms, a behavior believed to aid in feeding. Sand rollers are important members of freshwater ecosystems, playing a role in nutrient cycling and serving as prey for larger fish.

Phenacobius

Phenacobius

Phenacobius is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the western chubs. They are found in freshwater rivers and streams of western North America. Western chubs are characterized by their streamlined bodies and are important components of freshwater ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as prey for larger fish.

Bluntnose Minnow

Pimephales

Pimephales is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the bluntnose minnows. They are found in freshwater habitats across North America. Bluntnose minnows are small, silvery fish that are often used as baitfish and are also important forage species for larger predatory fish.

River Chub

Pogonichthys

Pogonichthys is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the long-whiskered catfishes. They are found in freshwater rivers and streams of western North America. Long-whiskered catfishes are characterized by their long barbels or whiskers and are important bottom-dwelling species that contribute to nutrient cycling in freshwater ecosystems.

Pugnose Minnow

Pugnose Minnow

Pugnose minnow is a small fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a distinctive blunt snout, giving them their common name. Pugnose minnows are known for their aggressive behavior during the breeding season and play important roles in the aquatic food chain.

Richardsonius

Richardsonius

Richardsonius is a genus of fish in the family Cyprinidae, commonly known as the redside shiners. They are found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. Redside shiners are characterized by their vibrant coloration and are important components of aquatic ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as prey for larger fish species.

River Chub

River Chub

River chub is a fish species found in freshwater rivers and streams of North America. They have a streamlined body and are typically found in clear, fast-flowing waters. River chubs are important components of freshwater ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as prey for larger fish.

Robust Redhorse
Brian Gratwicke¬†–¬†Flickr CC BY 2.0

Robust Redhorse

Robust redhorse is a large fish species found in freshwater rivers of North America. They have a robust body and are known for their reddish coloration. Robust redhorses are bottom-dwelling fish that primarily feed on benthic invertebrates. They are considered a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss and overfishing.

Sand Tiger Shark

Sand Tiger Shark

Sand tiger shark is a coastal shark species found along the eastern coast of North America. They have a slender body and a distinctive appearance with long, needle-like teeth protruding from their mouths. Despite their fearsome appearance, sand tiger sharks are generally docile and are often encountered by divers.

Sea Lamprey

Sea Lamprey

Sea lamprey is a jawless fish species found in the Atlantic Ocean and its connected freshwater systems in North America. They have a snake-like body and a parasitic lifestyle, attaching themselves to other fish to feed on their blood and body fluids. Sea lampreys have a significant impact on fish populations and are the target of control measures in certain areas.

Smooth Hammerhead

Smooth Hammerhead

Smooth hammerhead is a large shark species found in coastal waters of North America. They have a distinctive hammer-shaped head and are known for their sleek, streamlined bodies. Smooth hammerheads are skilled predators, feeding on a variety of fish and cephalopods.

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye salmon, also known as red salmon, is a highly valued fish species found in the Pacific Ocean and its connected freshwater systems in North America. They have a silvery body with a bright red coloration during the spawning season. Sockeye salmon are famous for their long migrations to their native spawning grounds and are commercially and culturally significant as a prized food fish.

Starry Flounder

Starry Flounder

Starry flounder is a flatfish species found in the coastal waters of North America. They have a flattened body and are known for their ability to change color and camouflage themselves on the seafloor. Starry flounders are bottom-dwelling predators and play a role in the coastal food chain.

Syngnathus Dawsoni

Syngnathus Dawsoni

Syngnathus dawsoni, commonly known as Dawson’s pipefish, is a species of pipefish found along the Pacific coast of North America. They have a long, slender body with a tubular snout. Dawson’s pipefish are usually found in seagrass beds and kelp forests, where they camouflage themselves among the vegetation.

Threadfin shad

Threadfin Shad

Threadfin shad is a small fish species found in freshwater lakes and rivers of North America. They have a slender body with a prominent filamentous extension on their dorsal fin. Threadfin shad are known for their schooling behavior and are an important forage fish for larger predatory species.

tui chub

Tui Chub

Tui chub is a fish species found in freshwater lakes and rivers of North America, particularly in the western United States. They have a robust body and are typically found in clear, cool waters. Tui chubs are important components of freshwater ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling and serving as prey for larger fish.

whale shark

Whale Shark

Whale shark is the largest fish species on Earth and is found in the oceans around the world, including the coastal waters of North America. They have a massive size, distinctive pattern of spots, and a wide mouth for filter-feeding. Whale sharks are gentle giants, feeding primarily on plankton, and are a popular attraction for divers and snorkelers.

White perch

White Perch

White perch is a fish species found in freshwater lakes, rivers, and estuaries of North America. They have a silvery body and are known for their voracious feeding habits. White perch are popular targets for anglers and are valued for their tasty flesh and sportfishing qualities.

White sturgeon

White Sturgeon

White sturgeon is a large fish species found in the Pacific coastal waters and rivers of North America. They have a robust body and are known for their long lifespans and slow growth. White sturgeon are highly prized by anglers and are also commercially harvested for their caviar. They are considered a species of conservation concern due to overfishing and habitat loss.