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Related FAQs: Triggerfishes in General, Triggerfish: Identification, Selection, Selection 2, Compatibility, Behavior, Systems, Feeding, Diseases, Triggerfish Health 2, Reproduction, Tropical Eastern Pacific Triggerfishes

Related Articles: Triggerfishes, Triggers of the Red Sea, Triggerfishes of the Cook Islands

/A Fishwatcher's Guide 

Triggerfishes of the Tropical Eastern Pacific

(or, Triggerfishes of Baja, the Balistidae of Mexico's California)

Bob Fenner

 Xanthichthys mento

Triggerfishes for  Marine

Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

    Folks seem wont to recognize the good things in their "own backyards". In the U.S. many drivers go ga-ga for Mercedes... in Europe most people consider them just practical automobile transportation... Just south of the United States west coast there exists a similar situation in the way of tropical fish et al. possibilities. "What?" "Tropical fish in Mexico's Pacific?" Yes... among other groups, the Triggerfishes have a few species here of notice to aquarium hobbyists.

    What's more I am more than happy to announce that the decade long ban on collecting, importing livestock from Mexico's coastal waters is over... and that there is a steady supply of excellent fishes coming "up the line" from Baja, to and through Los Angeles marine livestock wholesale operators. 

Classification: Species of Note:

Triggerfishes around the world are easy to characterize… they're oblong, with a "trigger" dorsal fin of three spines (related Filefishes, family Monacanthidae, only have two. They have small, but powerful mouths that can deliver a potent bite to all things living and not, including humans. Six species are found in the tropical eastern Pacific, all within Mexico's waters though only three are seen commonly about the rocky shores of Baja California.

Of these six species only half show up in the trade… As you will see, the others are not that attractive… As most members of the Balistids, the Baja Triggers need plenty of room, particularly the three that are more open-ocean in their natural environment. Most are relatively small in ultimate size… one gets more than two feet in length… one gets to over three…

The Finescale Trigger, Balistes polylepis Steindachner 1876, comes into the trade out of the tropical eastern Pacific, but it is ugly and grows to two feet. Here my old roomie Gary Okonowski holds up "the catch" before making la sopa.

Canthidermis maculatus (Bloch 1786), the Spotted or Oceanic Triggerfish. Found in all the world's oceans. To twenty inches in length. A pelagic species that adapts poorly to captivity in general. To about a foot and a half in length. This six inch baby in captivity.

Melichthys niger (Bloch 1786), the Black Durgeon/Triggerfish, usually imported from Hawai'i, but found circumtropically. To eighteen inches in total length. Highly variable in color, markings depending on health, mood.

The Blunthead or Stone Triggerfish Pseudobalistes naufragium (Jordan & Starks 1895). Tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, Mexico's Baja to Chile. To, yes, a meter in length. Two and three feet long ones in the Sea of Cortez..

The Orangeside Trigger, Suffflamen verres (Gilbert & Starks 1904). Found throughout the tropical eastern Pacific; Mexico's Baja to Ecuador and the Galapagos. To sixteen inches in length. This one in the Mar de Cortez.

The Redtail or Crosshatch Triggerfish, Xanthichthys mento (Jordan & Gillbert 1882). An open ocean species that is found in the entire tropical Pacific. To a foot in length. This one in captivity. Needs very large quarters (hundreds of gallons) to thrive. The common name Redtail is unfortunate as this species females have yellow caudal fins.

Rating and Buying Triggerfishes:

Most Triggerfish species offered in the trade rank the highest score (a 1) in my book in terms of aquarium survivability. This is of course given a few, actually two provisos: One, that you secure initially healthy specimens (usually no problem), and two, that they are procured at a reasonably small (but not too tiny) size. For most species the latter practical range is a few to a handful of inches in total length. All triggers are wild collected, and most of only an inch or so to start will do all right, but the two to five inchers are more sure-fire for adapting to captive conditions. 

    Of the six species of the tropical eastern Pacific, the first two infrequently enter the trade now and are unlikely to do so in future as they are not "beautiful"... being dull brown and gray respectively as adults. The Blunthead Trigger is a looker, but like other species of its genus (Pseudobalistes) becomes a real bruiser, potentially eating tankmates of all kinds, biting the hand (and more) that feeds it... with growth. The remaining three have much to recommend them. The Black and Orangeside Triggers aren't all that "mean" on the sliding scale of Balistid aggression... and don't get all that big to boot. I would like to re-emphasize the need for very large quarters for the members of the oceangoing genus Xanthichthys.... Am seeing a lot of these species coming into the industry (they're abundant, easy to catch)... and they really shouldn't be. These pelagic fishes need very big volumes to do well in captivity. Most  sulk in corners, pine away in captivity. Unless you have hundreds of gallons in a system, you won't have happy triggers ultimately... even starting with small specimens. 

    Selection of all Triggers including these six species is easy... Look for ones that have been "on hand" for at least a few days to settle in... Even if badly beat, fins chewed through the collection, shipping processes, if they're feeding and "up and about" the specimen/s you're observing are very likely to adapt, do well in captivity. Pay attention to the above "best size" recommendation, and aim for purchasing juveniles to sub-adults. 

Environmental Conditions:

    Triggerfishes are tough, adaptable, intelligent animals... they prefer an "enriched" environment with plenty to investigate (even move around)... and clean, well-filtered and circulated water. The rocky shore species need similar habitat similar spaces in your care... to wedge themselves into tight rocky caves to sleep at night… to feel secure in captivity.


    Needs to be over-sized... these are large, active, messy fishes. Redundant filtration (especially mechanical) and skimming are the rule here.

Behavior: Territoriality

    Triggerfishes should be placed last in a livestocking plan... as they commonly become territorial to the point of destruction. The best route in arranging other life with them is biotopic... selecting types of organisms that they are familiar with in the wild... and vice versa. Any new "item" added to a Trigger tank is fair game for manipulation.


    Very simple... after either a prophylactic dip/bath or quarantine, simple temperature adjustment through either floating or drip method is all that is called for.

Predatory Prey Relations:

    Again, all objects, living and not will be regarded as potential food and/or play items... Are they "reef safe"? Maybe in someone else's tanks.


Eat most everything in the wild and captivity… including tankmates of all kinds… Corals, Starfish, Sponges, Crustaceans (crabs, shrimps), Mollusks… other fishes… not to be trusted absolutely with any other life form.


Triggerfishes are not super-susceptible to Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium but do contract these scourges in turn, later than other fishes. Fortunately they respond well to environmental manipulation and copper treatments.


    The six pack of Trigger species from the tropical eastern Pacific span the gamut of aquarium suitability for their family. Some are too big, mean, colorless... a few are "just right" for captive husbandry.  Looking for an ever-curious, intelligent, aquatic equivalent to family dog? You need look no further.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Allen, Gerald R. and D. Ross Robertson. 1994. Fishes of the Tropical Eastern Pacific. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu, HI. 332pp.

Berry, F.H. & L.E. Vogele. 1966. Triggerfishes (Balistidae) of the E. Pacific. Calif. Acad. Sci. Ser. 4, 34:429-474.

Burgess, Warren E. 1974. Salts from the seven seas: the genus. TFH 7/74.

Burgess, Warren E., Axelrod, Herbert R. & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes Reference Book, v.1 Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, NJ.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Fishes for the beginner; A guide for the new marine hobbyist - part five; Triggerfish. FAMA 3/79.

Clothier, C.R. 1939. The trigger mechanism of a triggerfish (Capriscus polylepis). Calif. Fish Game 25:233-236.

Dareste, C. 1872B. On the natural affinitions of the Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat Hist. Ser. 4, 10:68-70.

Edmonds, Les 1994. Trigger happy fish. TFH 8/94.

Emmens, Cliff W. 1984. Triggerfishes. TFH 5/84.

Fenner, Robert. 1997. Rating the Triggerfishes of the Red Sea. TFH 10/97.

Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist; A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Flood, Andrew Colin. 1997. The trouble with triggers. TFH 2/97.

Fraser-Brunner, A. 1935A. Notes on the plectognath fishes I. A synopsis of the genera of the family Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. Ser. 10, 15:658-663.

Holliday, L. 1987. Marine fish of the month. No. 7. Triggerfish. Practical Fishkeeping, April 1987, 62-63.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Trigger talk. SeaScope, v. 12, Summer 95.

Michael, Scott W. Triggerfishes. A great reason for having a saltwater tank. AFM 2/97.

Miklosz, John C. 1972. Trigger Fishes. Marine Aquarist Magazine. 3(2), 1972.

Murray, J.; Griffith, O.; Johnson, J. 1984. Triggerfish: The snow white challenge. Sea Grant Publ. N.C. Univ. Sea Grant Prog. A brochure on preserving, dressing and preparing Balistids for recreational fisherpeople.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed. John Wiley & Sons, NY. 600pp.

Randall, J.E. & J.T. Millington. 1990. Triggerfish bite - a little known marine hazard. J. Wilderness Med. 1(2) 1990:79-85

Stratton, Richard F. 1995. The triggerfish mystique. TFH 11/95.

Thomson, Don; Findley, Lloyd & Alex Kerstitch. 1979. Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez (The Rocky Shore Fishes of the Gulf of California). Wiley-Interscience.

Triggerfishes for  Marine

Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

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