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Pelagic Fish vs. Demersal Fish: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Published on February 1, 2024
Pelagic fish inhabit the open water column, not close to the bottom or shore, while demersal fish live and feed on or near the seabed.

Key Differences

Pelagic fish are species that live in the pelagic zone of ocean or lake waters – being neither close to the bottom nor near the shore. They are known for their life in the open water, often in schools. Demersal fish, in contrast, are found on or near the bottom of seas or lakes. They are associated with the sea floor and are often solitary or form small groups.
The habitat of pelagic fish includes the entire water column, except the nearshore and seabed environments. These fish, such as tuna and mackerel, are often involved in long migrations. Demersal fish, such as cod and flounder, are adapted to life at the bottom, often lying in wait for prey or scavenging the sea floor.
Pelagic fish are typically streamlined for efficient swimming as they often traverse large areas in search of food or during migration. Demersal fish, however, may have adaptations like flattened bodies and coloration that helps them blend into the ocean floor, aiding in camouflage from predators and while hunting.
In terms of diet, pelagic fish generally feed on plankton, other fish, and squid, often exhibiting predatory behavior in the open water. Demersal fish, on the other hand, tend to feed on organisms found on or near the seabed, including smaller fish, crustaceans, and worms.
Pelagic fish are crucial for commercial fishing industries, with species like tuna being highly sought after. Demersal fish are also commercially important, but their fishing often involves different techniques, such as trawling, due to their bottom-dwelling nature.

Comparison Chart


Open water column, away from bottom or shore.
Near or on the seabed.

Social Behavior

Often travel in schools.
Typically solitary or in small groups.

Physical Adaptations

Streamlined for efficient swimming.
Adaptations for bottom living, like flat bodies.


Plankton, other fish, squid.
Organisms near the seabed, like crustaceans.

Commercial Fishing

Important for fisheries, involves open-water techniques.
Important, often caught with trawling methods.

Pelagic Fish and Demersal Fish Definitions

Pelagic Fish

Pelagic fish are adapted for life in the water column, not near shores or the bottom.
Pelagic fish like mackerel are often found swimming in large schools in open waters.

Demersal Fish

Demersal fish are important to commercial fishing, often caught by trawling.
Trawlers target demersal fish like halibut due to their bottom-dwelling nature.

Pelagic Fish

Pelagic fish are important for commercial fisheries, caught in open waters.
Commercial fishing boats target pelagic fish such as herring for their economic value.

Demersal Fish

Demersal fish are adapted to life on the ocean floor, often camouflaged.
Flounder, a type of demersal fish, blends into the sea floor with its flat body.

Pelagic Fish

Pelagic fish often feed on plankton and smaller fish in the open sea.
Sardines, a pelagic species, primarily feed on plankton.

Demersal Fish

Demersal fish may exhibit solitary behavior or form small groups.
Grouper, a demersal species, is often seen alone or in small clusters near reefs.

Pelagic Fish

Pelagic fish inhabit the open ocean areas, away from the sea floor.
Tuna, a type of pelagic fish, is known for its long migrations across the ocean.

Demersal Fish

Demersal fish feed on organisms found near the seabed, like crustaceans.
The diet of demersal fish such as sole includes small sea creatures found in sediment.

Pelagic Fish

Pelagic fish include species that migrate over long distances.
Salmon are pelagic fish known for their extensive migratory patterns.

Demersal Fish

Demersal fish live and feed on or near the bottom of water bodies.
Cod, a demersal fish, is often found near the seabed of colder waters.


What do demersal fish typically eat?

Demersal fish feed on organisms near the seabed, like crustaceans and worms.

Do demersal fish migrate?

Some demersal fish may migrate, but typically over shorter distances than pelagic fish.

How do pelagic fish feed?

Pelagic fish feed on plankton, other fish, or squid in the open ocean.

Is the diet of pelagic fish diverse?

Yes, pelagic fish have a diverse diet depending on their species and habitat.

What are examples of demersal fish?

Examples include cod, flounder, and sole.

Are pelagic fish migratory?

Many pelagic fish, like tuna and salmon, are migratory.

How are demersal fish caught?

Demersal fish are often caught using trawling or bottom fishing techniques.

Can pelagic fish be found near coral reefs?

Some pelagic fish may visit reefs, but they mostly inhabit open waters.

Do demersal fish have specific adaptations for their habitat?

Yes, adaptations like flattened bodies for camouflaging with the seabed.

What defines a pelagic fish?

Pelagic fish are defined by their habitat in the open water column, away from the bottom or shore.

What fishing methods are used for pelagic fish?

Methods like purse seining and longlining are used for pelagic fish.

What role do demersal fish play in marine ecosystems?

Demersal fish are key predators and scavengers near the ocean floor.

What research is being done on pelagic fish?

Research includes migration patterns, population dynamics, and impact of fishing.

Are demersal fish found in deep water?

Yes, many demersal fish are found in deep water near the ocean floor.

Are pelagic fish important for ecosystems?

Yes, they play a crucial role in marine food webs.

How does the physical appearance of pelagic fish differ from demersal fish?

Pelagic fish are often streamlined, while demersal fish may have flat, camouflaging bodies.

Are demersal fish species at risk of overfishing?

Yes, some demersal species are at risk due to intensive fishing practices.

Can pelagic and demersal fish coexist in the same area?

They can coexist, but they occupy different parts of the water column.

What is the conservation status of pelagic fish?

The status varies, with some species like certain tuna being overfished.

How are demersal fish populations monitored?

Through methods like trawl surveys and monitoring of catch rates.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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