In ancient times, this tiny, unsuspecting tang could get you killed. When Polynesians migrated to Hawaii, they discovered ample amounts of kole in the waters surrounding the islands. Prized for their delicious flavor, the kole tang was considered a royal fish, and as such they were only to be consumed by Hawaiian royalty. They took this so seriously that a commoner caught eating a kole could immediately be sentenced to death! The beloved kole tang is found mostly on coral atolls and reefs in Hawaii and the Johnson Atolls, but its range can extend throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Kole is the Hawaiian common name, and as such, you don’t want to get caught calling them “cole” as in coleslaw; rather, pronounce it with two syllables, “koh-lay”. The kole tang goes by many aliases: gold ring surgeonfish, yellow eye kole tang, goldring bristletooth tang, spotted surgeonfish, and yellow-eyed surgeonfish.
Juvenile kole start out with a chocolate brown body which can take on a blue color and thin, horizontal blue stripes as they mature, while developing lighter spots on the face. A thin line of electric blue outlines the dorsal and anal fins. A distinct yellow ring encircles their eyes. These tangs are renowned for being some of the best marine algae eaters, using the bristle-like teeth that are common in their genus to scrape algae from hard surfaces. They can live to 35 years in the wild and grow up to 17cm. The aquarium trade has significantly impacted kole populations on Hawaii’s reefs, and while a ban on aquarium collection in Hawaii is currently in place, the pet industry is fighting hard to open it back up.
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