Major Fish Species Native to California
California seas are blessed with an amazing variety of fish and shellfish. California fishermen and seafood suppliers deliver approximately 300 species to market each year. While the state's fishing industry once was dominated by sardines, and later by a tuna fishery that accounted for 70 percent of the industry's ex-vessel revenues as recently as 1980, now a mix of species contributes both to the volume and value of the California catch.
In 1996 the Golden State's top revenue-generating species were California market squid, sea urchins, tunas, Dungeness crab, groundfish species such as sablefish, rockfish and soles, roe herring, swordfish, king salmon, spiny lobster and pink shrimp. Following is a synopsis of California's major species: where they are found and how they are caught. Please contact the Council for more information on these species or on others that may not be included in these pages, or consult the reference book credited at the end of this list.
Major Shellfish Species Native to California
California barracuda are nearshore, epipelagic, schooling fish found from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, to Kodiak Island, Alaska. Thin and toothy, an axe handle with jaws, Pacific barracuda are smaller than their Atlantic relatives, and undeserving of the fierce image conjured by their name. However, the California variety is a fighting fish on a sportsman's line. Barracuda became a popular game fish after World War II. The catch has historically centered in southern California and northern Baja.
Barracuda figured prominently in the development of California's purse seine fishery in the early 1900's. Landings peaked in the early 1940's, then declined, while a series of state regulations supplanted the purse seine in favor of gillnets and hook and line. A popular market fish during the fishery's heyday, barracuda fell out of fashion -- out of sight, out of mind -- as the public taste turned to shark. Barracuda have returned to abundance, awaiting rediscovery as Californians increasingly value the health benefits of Omega-3-rich seafood.
Pacific hake, the single largest biomass of fish in the Pacific, are found from the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of California. The largest of four major stocks, the "coastal stock" is managed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Pacific whiting was considered an underutilized species until 1991, the first year that the entire quota was caught and processed by the U.S. fishing industry. (Although a small domestic fishery for hake has continued since the late 1800's, beginning in 1966 foreign fleets, and later joint ventures, with foreign processing vessels served by U.S. catcher boats, harvested hake.)
A delicate, white-meated fish, Pacific whiting are now processed into surimi by both sea-going factory trawlers and shoreside processing plants. Surimi, highly refined minced fish, is used in the production of imitation crab, scallop, and shrimp products. Shore-based plants in northern California, Oregon, and Washington process whiting.
These bottom-dwelling flatfish are yearlong residents in sand and mud-bottomed coastal waters, found from the surf zone to about 300 feet deep, from Washington State to Baja California. The area of greatest abundance is southern California and northern Baja. California halibut, with a maximum length of 60 inches and weight to 72 pounds, are smaller than Pacific halibut. Ambush predators with both eyes usually located on the left side of the head, California halibut are non-schooling, unpredictable, elusive fish -- the "bread and butter" fish of California's nearshore groundfish fishery.
Twenty-two inches is the minimum legal length for commercial sale of California halibut. In the last decade, California fishermen have provided an average 1.1 million pounds of this mild-flavored, white-meat fish to consumers. In normal ocean cycles, more than 70% of the catch originates in central and southern California waters. Because of their economy of operation and consistent ability to catch fish, gillnets historically provided most of California's halibut catch. California halibut are also caught with hook and line and large-mesh trawl in designated areas.
Pacific mackerel, also called blue mackerel, occur worldwide in temperate and subtropical coastal waters. In the eastern Pacific they range from Chile to the Gulf of Alaska but are most abundant south of Point Conception, the demarkation point of southern California. These fish form dense schools as a defense against predators and are often found with other pelagic species, including jack mackerel and sardines.
Pacific mackerel supported one of California's major fisheries during the 1930's and '40's, and again during the 1980's and early 90's. A "wetfish," along with anchovies and sardines, mackerel are so called because they are canned with minimal pre-processing (wet from the ocean). The canning of Pacific mackerel began in the 1920's, paralleling the development of California's sardine industry. During the 1930's, mackerel was second only to Pacific sardines in total annual landings. From 1984 through 1991, Pacific mackerel ranked first in volume of finfish landed in California.
Mackerel is still an important catch for California's traditional purse seine fleet, which operates yearlong in the southern California Bight, occasionally traveling to offshore banks and the Channel Islands. Monterey's round-haul fleet also lands mackerel. Mackerel have a cyclic and seasonal pattern: fish tend to move offshore and out of range of the coastal fishery from January through May, then become increasingly abundant inshore until late fall. California's harvest is also governed by a quota that varies with the estimated biomass; this biomass is influenced by natural oceanic cycles.
Commercially harvested Pacific mackerel seldom exceed 16 inches in length and two pounds. Currently most of the Pacific mackerel catch is canned for human consumption and pet food, with a small amount sold to the fresh market.
Rockfish belong to the family Scorpaenidae, or scorpionfishes. One of the most important fish families in California waters, the rockfish group encompasses 59 species, most of them desirable at market. State law allows 13 species to be called Pacific red snapper. These include widow, bocaccio, chilipepper, vermilion, yellowtail, black, and olive rockfish, to name several. However, none of these fish is a true red snapper, which is an Atlantic species not found on the West Coast.
Many rockfish species range from Baja California to British Columbia, and some extend to Alaska. Adults of most species are found at depths to 1,200 feet. Rockfish are basically non-migratory fish. Recognized by the sharp spines on their dorsal fins, rockfish vary in length from 20" to 37" and may weigh up to 30 pounds. The species mix varies by area and fishing method: fishermen use hook and line (a category that includes both troll and longline), gillnets, and trawl nets to catch rockfish. Gillnet and trawl catches, which produce the largest volume at a reasonable price, are often processed into fillets for restaurants and retail sale, although some of this fish is also marketed whole. Hook and line rockfish are usually marketed in whole form, with a growing number delivered alive. Considered premium quality by Oriental markets, the hook and line catch receives top price.
Sablefish range from the Asiatic coast of the Bering Sea to northern Baja California. Dark gray to black in color, sablefish are sometimes called blackcod, although not a member of the cod family. They have long been an important component of the California catch. In the 1930's sablefish livers, rich in vitamin A, commanded a higher price than the meat. In recent years, most of the sablefish caught in California, as well as elsewhere on the Pacific coast, have been exported to Japan, where the velvet-textured, oily, white-meated fish is highly prized. The high oil content of the flesh produces an excellent smoked product. Many experts regard sablefish as one of the best flavored of all fish. Fishermen employ longlines, trawl nets, and traps to catch sablefish.
All Pacific salmon are anadromous, beginning life upstream, migrating to the ocean, then returning to their natal stream to spawn and die. King salmon, the largest of five Pacific salmon species, spawn in suitable rivers from the Sacramento - San Joaquin system northward.
California's commercial salmon fishery has endured since the mid-1800's. King salmon is the primary catch, although fishermen also occasionally land pink salmon. (Coho, or silver, salmon have been a prohibited catch for several years.) In its earliest days, the fishery operated in the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, stimulated by the canning industry. The first salmon cannery on the Pacific coast began operating on the Sacramento River in 1864. Peaking in 1881-82, the industry later collapsed; the last cannery closed in 1919.
The ocean troll fishery began in the 1880's in Monterey Bay, the first trollers going to sea in small sailboats. Today's fishermen still use the basic techniques developed in the 1920's and '30's -- including powered gurdies and four to six main trolling lines. Today, entry to the fishery is limited. A fleet that numbered approximately 2,900 trollers in 1992 fish in a season that extends from May 1 through September 30, south of San Francisco. North of San Francisco Bay, the season is highly regulated to conserve Klamath River salmon stocks.
Dover, English, Petrale, and Rex sole are all highly popular flatfish species caught by California's trawl fleet. Until the emergence of the Pacific whiting fishery, these sole species were the most abundant groundfish in the California catch. The sole family is caught jointly with other marketable groundfish such as sablefish and thornyheads. Eureka, followed by Fort Bragg, Crescent City, Monterey, San Francisco, Morro Bay, and Port San Luis are the primary ports producing sole.
Generally speaking, soles spawn in deep water during wintertime and, shortly after spawning, move inshore through spring and summer months. However, tagging studies found that many mature Dover sole remain in deep water yearlong. Petrale tend to move shoreward and northward in summer.
Also varying by species, the sole family ranges from Baja California to northwest Alaska or the Bering Sea. Dover can be found on mud bottoms to depths of 4,800 feet. English and Petrale sole extend as deep as 1,500 - 1,800 feet. Petrale prefer sand bottom and have been known to move great distances. Petrale are larger than most California flatfish, and are the premium sole at market. Rex sole, which occur to about 2,100 foot depths on muddy-sandy bottom, are generally not filleted because their thin body does not allow for efficient recovery. Rex are highly prized by conoisseurs for bright, white flesh and a sweet, distinctive taste.
Small pelagic fish often found in association with mackerel and anchovy, Pacific sardines are a member of the herring family. The principal stock ranges from northern Baja California northward as far as Alaska. Historically this population migrated extensively, moving north as far as British Columbia in summer and returning to southern California in the fall. In the 1930's and '40's, Pacific sardines provided the source for the largest fishery in North America; the sardine industry centered in California. More than 100 canneries and reduction plants from San Diego to San Francisco employed thousands of workers to process sardines. At its peak in 1936-37, this industry encompassed more than 350 boats, which produced 726,000 tons of fish. About 70% of the catch was reduced for fishmeal and 30% went for food -- three million cases of canned sardines.
Beginning in the late 1940's, sardines vanished -- first from the Pacific Northwest, then from Monterey, and in the 1950's from southern California. Scientists now recognize that, beyond fishing pressure, a change in oceanic cycles, reflected in an extended period of below-normal water temperatures, greatly influenced the decline.
In this current warm-water oceanic cycle, sardines have returned to abundance and fishing is regulated by quotas determined by the size of the spawning biomass. Today a much smaller wetfish fleet fishes sardines. In Monterey, sardine fishing peaks in summertime, when the fish are larger. In southern California, the sardine fishery begins in January. A federal management plan for coastal pelagic species, including sardines, anchovy, and mackerel, is under development by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Found in temperate waters, thresher sharks inhabit the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. In the Pacific, they range from British Columbia to southern California. These fish move with the season and water temperature; big fish tend to swim north in summer and south in winter. Reaching 25 feet in length, the thresher is identified by its small mouth and a tail that measures almost half of its total body length, which is used to stun prey.
California's commercial thresher shark season is open August 15 to December 15 inside 25 miles of the coast. Most thresher are caught within 25 miles of the mainland in an area extending from central California to the Mexican border. California fishermen with special permits employ super large-mesh (18"-22") drift gillnets to catch thresher, fishing at night and retrieving the catch at dawn. The fishery is closed in spring and early summer to protect breeding populations. Thresher are slow-growing sharks that give birth to live young, usually two to four pups a year.
Shark has become increasingly popular dining fare in the last decade. The primary shark harvested in California, thresher possesses firm texture, mild flavor, and pinkish colored flesh. A popular meat for grilling, it is also excellent when broiled, baked, or steamed. Other mild-flavored, equally tasty shark species landed in California include mako, also called bonito shark, and nearshore shark species such as angel, leopard , and soupfin shark.
Swordfish are found in tropical and temperate oceans worldwide. In the Pacific, swordfish range from Asia to the Americas and from northern waters off Alaska to the southern reaches of South America. Preferring warmer climes, swordfish characteristically surface at night and move to the depths in daylight. These broadbills congregate in areas where food is abundant, along frontal zones where ocean currents meet to create turbulence and sharp temperature breaks. There are five such zones in the Pacific, and this is where most fishing occurs. Swordfish are fished by many Pacific Rim countries: the top swordfish harvesting nations in the Pacific are Japan, Chile, and the Philippines, in order. California ranks fourth, representing about 10% of Pacific swordfish landings.
California swordfish fishermen are the most strictly regulated of all Pacific Rim fleets. Most California swordfish are caught with super-wide-mesh drift gillnets (18"-22" mesh) in a season open from August through January. The regulated use of these nets insures a consistent catch in all water conditions. Often enduring dangerous ocean conditions, California fishermen may range from north of San Francisco to the Mexican border and up to 200 miles offshore in search of swordfish. The men and women of California's swordfish fleet work hard to deliver a top-quality product to market. One of the most popular seafoods, swordfish steak is moderate flavored and can be easily broiled, baked, or grilled.
Albacore is the only tuna species allowed to be marketed as white meat tuna. Traditionally the premium canned tuna, this highly migratory species is gaining prestige in the finest white-tablecloth restaurants and sushi bars for its mild, delicate flavor.
A cosmopolitan fish, albacore range in subtropical and temperate oceans worldwide. In the Pacific, juvenile albacore embark on well-defined migrations between eastern and western shores. Research suggests that at least two subpopulations inhabit the North Pacific, each with different migration patterns. Spawning adults, more than six years old, make shorter journeys than their offspring.
Off the North American coast in summer and fall, albacore run from Baja California northward to Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands. California albacore fishermen troll feathered jigs at the ocean surface to catch these swift-swimming fish. Several members of the fleet also travel to the South Pacific to fish albacore during wintertime.
Bluefin spawn between Japan and the Philippines in the spring and summer and migrate across the Pacific in their first or second year of life, the journey taking seven months or less. These fast-swimming fish may grow to several hundred pounds. Bluefin are rarely encountered south of Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, or north of Point Conception, California. Purse seiners targeting mackerel and sardines occasionally spot the herring-bone pattern of bluefin schools in the Santa Barbara Channel in summer and fall. In the fall of 1988, seiners landed nearly 1,000 large bluefin in a three-month period. Most of the fish were flown to Japan, where this ruby-red-meated fish is prized as sashimi and brings a high price.
Yellowfin tuna are found throughout the tropical Pacific. The world's single largest biomass of yellowfin inhabits the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP), ranging from Chile to southern California. Tagging studies indicate that the ETP stock is a single population, with seasonal coastal migrations but no large-scale movement to the central or western Pacific. In the daytime, mature yellowfin associate with dolphins to some degree in all the world oceans. However, the relationship with dolphins is well-developed in the eastern Pacific. ETP tuna stocks have been regulated by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission since 1966.
Tuna was first canned in California in 1903; by 1907 the industry was well established, packing primarily albacore. By the late 1920's, the volume had shifted to yellowfin and the smaller skipjack. The development of brine refrigeration in the late 1930's led to the fishery's expansion far southward. In 1957, the introduction of strong, light-weight nylon netting and the power block spurred the traditional bait boat fleet to convert to purse seines, a more efficient and effective way to catch tuna.
The U.S. tuna fleet based in southern California grew to become the largest of its kind in the world. From 1982 through 1984, the major canneries in southern California relocated outside the U.S., unable to compete with foreign labor rates and increasing competition from imported, lower-priced water-packed tuna. The relocation of industry, and increasingly rigid marine mammal protection policies, are primary reasons why most U.S. tuna vessels now fish in the Western Pacific (many vessels also were forced to reflag or went bankrupt). California's tuna fleet is now a distant-water fleet that delivers its catch to canneries in Asia, American Samoa, South America and Puerto Rico.
Major Shellfish Species Native to California
The largest edible true crab on the West Coast, Dungeness are fished from Alaska to central California and are generally found on open sandy bottom or near rocky reef-type substrate. Fishermen deploy circular crab pots to catch Dungeness, leaving them submerged on the ocean bottom overnight or longer, depending on fishing conditions. The central coast season opens the second Tuesday in November; Dungeness are a Thanksgiving tradition in the San Francisco Bay area. The northern California season opens December 1 (coinciding with Oregon and Washington) and extends to July 15. Northern ports of Crescent City, Eureka, and Fort Bragg account for as much as 95 percent of statewide landings.
The seasons are established to allow harvesting when crab are in prime market condition. Regulations prohibit commercial harvest of female crab and set a minimum size limit on males of 6 1/4" measured across the back. Dungeness are generally sold in whole, cooked form, although some are marketed alive, even shipped overseas. This popular seafood is often served in salads, in cioppino, or simply cracked on the plate, accompanied by drawn butter and crusty sourdough bread.
California fishermen harvest three distinct species of rock crab -- all cousins of the Dungeness. Most of the catch comes from the Santa Barbara region, where rock crab are available yearlong. These members of the Cancer family are noted for the flavorful meat in their legs and claws; unlike Dungeness, there is little meat in the body.
Spider crab, also known as sheep crab, range from Cordell Bank (Marin County) south to Baja California in depths of 20 to 410 feet. They are caught in traps primarily in southern California. These knobby, long-legged crab are an uncommon treat: connoisseurs say the delicate flavor and firm texture of spider crabs' plentiful leg and body meat surpasses that of snow crab. Spider crab are sometimes called California king crab.
California spiny lobster range from Monterey Bay to Mexico, but most of the catch comes from the southern California coast and Channel Islands. Female lobster migrate to the shallows to spawn during spring and summer; in fall the population moves offshore to mate. Larval lobster drift in the ocean for 18 months and molt 12 times before they settle on the bottom. Adult lobster shed their shells once a year. Typically found in rocky habitat ranging from the intertidal zone to more than 240 feet deep, lobster are nocturnal, hiding in the rocks by day and foraging widely at night.
California lobster fishermen set rectangular traps for lobster. Trap regulations require an escape port for undersized lobster, and trap doors are fastened with bare metal crimps that dissolve in seawater over time. Open season extends from the first Wednesday in October to the first Wednesday after March 15. Minimum legal size for the commercial catch is 3.25" carapace length; these lobster reach legal size in 7 to 11 years. California spiny lobster lack the large pincer claws characteristic of east coast lobster; thus the sweet, tender meat is concentrated in the tail. California spiny lobster's fine texture and sweet flavor are prized in Asian markets.
A confusing turnabout in gastronomic appelation, the California spot prawn is really a shrimp, and the ridgeback shrimp is a true prawn. Without a doubt, both are delicious.
Spot prawns are aptly named for the four bright white spots on their bodies. Commonly found from Alaska to San Diego, spot prawns inhabit rocky and adjacent areas at depths from about 150 to 1,600 feet. These prawns begin life as males then change sex to female after about two years, as they near spawning age. Spot prawns live about six years, reaching six inches in length. Monterey fishermen trap spot prawns yearlong; southern California trawlers fish for spot prawns during summer, and switch to ridgebacks in winter.
Ridgebacks, sometimes called Santa Barbara shrimp, are found from Monterey to Baja California and are fished primarily in the Santa Barbara Channel. The ridgeback's life span is about 4 years, and the sexes remain separate. With their sharp, spiny shells, "ridgies" are the dickens to peel but may be the sweetest tasting prawn on the West Coast.
Pacific pink shrimp are found from Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands to San Diego, California, at depths from 150 to 1,200 feet. In California, the species generally inhabits depths of 240 to 750 feet. Concentrations of shrimp usually remain in well-defined beds from year to year. These areas are associated with green mud and muddy-sand bottoms. Ocean shrimp tend to move toward the surface at night to feed on plankton. Like spot prawns, pink shrimp are hermaphrodites, beginning life as males, then transforming to females as they approach maturity. Mating takes place in September and October, and peak hatching occurs during late March and early April.
California's trawl fishery for pink shrimp began in 1952, after the Department of Fish and Game found commercial quantities during a research cruise. In 1981 uniform regulations were set for the Pacific coast: these regulations set open season April 1 through October 31, prescribe a minimum trawl mesh size of 1 3/8" measured inside the knots and a maximum count per pound of 160 shrimp. California's shrimp fishery is divided into three regulatory areas: Crescent City - Eureka, Fort Bragg - San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay to the Mexican border. An average of 63 vessels participated in the fishery from 1983 to 1990, and California landings averaged 3.7 million pounds from 1952 through 1990. The Crescent City - Eureka area has consistently produced the highest landings.
Spiny echinoderms, sea urchins once were considered pests, blamed for decimating kelp beds. In the early 1970's, a diving fishery was begun to harvest urchins and export them to Japan, where sea urchin roe, or "uni," is a delicacy. By the late 1980's, with favorable exchange rates, the price of uni rose and divers flocked to the underwater gold rush. At the advice of industry leaders, the Department of Fish and Game has since enacted increasingly restrictive seasons and size limits to conserve the resource. And divers have assessed themselves several million dollars for research and management of the fishery.
In 1989, sea urchins became California's largest coastal fishery, with production exceeding 50 million pounds and an ex-vessel value of more than $21 million. Landings and value in 1996 were 20 million pounds and $18.7 million ex-vessel, topped only by squid. Red sea urchins are the primary target of this export fishery: urchins are cracked and processed and the gonad or "roe" is hand-packed into wooden trays and airshipped to Japan, where the auction price approaches $100 a pound during the Christmas holiday season. The export value of California's urchin fishery is estimated at $80 million.
California market squid range from southeastern Alaska to Baja California. This pelagic mollusk grows to 12 inches in length, including its eight arms and two feeding tentacles. Its elongated body, or mantle, houses an internal shell, called a pen. A pair of fins, along with a siphon, propel the squid as it darts through the water. Squid are among the most intelligent of invertebrates, capable of instant camouflage or jet propelled flight in any direction. Several species have been used extensively in neuro-physiological research to study how nerves work.
Historical evidence as well as recent catch data indicate that the biomass of market squid is large. Spawning squid tend to congregate in semi-protected bays, usually over sand bottom with rocky outcroppings. In the Monterey area, spawning usually begins in late April and extends through October. In southern California waters, spawning starts in October and ends around April. Adults typically spawn between 12 and 18 months of age and die after spawning. California's round-haul fleet fishes spawning populations in limited areas around Monterey and southern California. Other fishable concentrations of squid have occasionally been found along the coast from central California to British Columbia, but the only sustained fishery is California's.
Immigrant fishermen from Sicily introduced the round-haul net method for catching squid at the turn of the 20th century. The enterprise of these fishermen contributed importantly to the development of the fishing ports of Monterey and San Pedro. Following the spawning cycle, Monterey's squid fishing season begins in May and extends into fall. Southern California's fishery begins in late October and extends until spring. Fishing usually takes place at night, and squid schools are attracted to the surface with bright lights. Squid are caught by encircling schools with a round-haul net, such as the purse seine or lampara. The net is drawn closed and hauled back, then the catch is brailed aboard the boat and quickly brought to shore for packing.
California's squid fishery is the largest in the U.S. In 1996, fishermen caught a record 177 million pounds of pearlescent market squid, valued at $33.3 million ex-vessel.
For more detailed information on these and other species found in California, a highly recommended source is:
"California's Living Marine Resources and their Utilization," published by the Sea Grant Extension Program, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616.
Originally published in 1971 and updated in 1992, the book is widely referenced by educators, industry, researchers and policymakers. This primer has relied on it extensively as an accurate source of information.