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California Sheephead Research Efforts

California SheepheadThere are many people unnoticed or unseen who often work tirelessly to improve California’s fisheries … it’s as though they are hidden behind a curtain. Recently, I had an opportunity to observe these hard-working employees firsthand on one of three trips sampling for California Sheephead.

(Note: This fish is often mistakenly called sheepshead. Instead, the California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) is highly sought after off the coast of southern California. Commercial trappers target the smaller fish, sport (esp. spearfishers) may target larger males.)

A three-trip study to collect California sheephead samples was organized as “a collaborative effort by industry (commercial and recreational), researchers, and managers all working together,” Alayna Siddall, Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) Director of Science and Communications, noted.

California SheepheadThe California sheephead is a species of wrasse native to the eastern Pacific Ocean from Monterrey Bay, California, to the Gulf of California, Mexico. In favorable conditions they often survive for over 20 years, reaching three feet and 35-pounds. Carnivorous, living in rocky reefs and kelp bed habitats, they feed primarily on sea urchins, mollusks, and crustaceans.

All California sheephead are born female and can change into males at various stages in their life cycle, triggered primarily by social cues like the absence of a dominant male. Their rocky reef and kelp bed habitat protects from predators, which is vital as this species is diurnal, foraging during the day and seeking shelter at night.

California SheepheadThose who met at the Berth 55 Landing, Long Beach Sportfishing at 5:30 a.m. included Siddall along with commercial fisherman Craig Jacobs plus Sal, Jim, Greg and Barron, the Eldorado crew; and California Department of Fish and Wildlife crew, Miranda Haggerty, Environmental Scientist along with Scientific aide, Maddie Guest.

California SheepheadAfter introductions, Jacobs pulled a trap from beneath the dock to show everyone the box crabs used to bait the traps that were piled high on his fully-rigged commercial skiff. The team then boarded the well-maintained 85-foot El Dorado for departure.

According to Siddall, in 1999 size limits for commercial sheephead were established by CDFW at 13-inches; in 2001, for recreational anglers, size limits were 12-inches.

Current regulations do not allow anglers to fillet sheephead at sea or while vessels are secured to the dock. Rules state “No person shall fillet, steak or cut into chunks on any boat or bring ashore as fillets, steaks or chunks …any species with a size limit unless a fillet size is otherwise specified…”. Since the fish are hard to fillet, some anglers either leave their catch on the boat or discard them.

Working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), SAC was assignedCalifornia Sheephead the responsibility of collecting California sheephead from various locations in southern California to determine the minimum length of a fillet from a legal-sized fish (12-inches). Commercial fishermen were employed to catch the fish while several experienced CPFV crew members filleted the sheephead. CDFW provided a team to oversee the collections, take necessary measurements, analyze the data and recommend a minimum size limit for fillets from legal-sized sheephead.

California SheepheadThe study was divided into three areas: Point Loma, Dana Point/Newport Beach, and Long Beach. Sixty sheephead were sampled in each area, producing 180 fish. Sheephead from 10 to 16-inches were collected with the focus of the collection surrounding the minimum size limit of 12-inches.

Commercial fish traps were used to collect fish to ensure that all size ranges were adequately represented.

California SheepheadDuring the study, the sheephead were filleted aboard the vessel while at sea in order to replicate conditions similar to current activities used for other fishes aboard local sport fishers.

Not far outside the Long Beach Harbor entrance at the local kelp beds where Jacobs had set his traps, the El Dorado slowed and idled a little after 7 a.m., awaiting the first delivery of live sheephead.

California SheepheadBefore filleting, the entire process of cataloging, measuring and recording the sheephead went smoothly. Next, the length of the fillet was noted. Care was taken to obtain the largest size fillet, cutting into the head area; not just a straight cut from behind the gills. Likewise, the fillet was extended into the tail where meat ends, and only skin remains.

As per request by the department’s Law Enforcement Division, the skin remained intact. The length to the nearest mm of both the left and right fillet was recorded. The name of the person who filleted the fish was also noted on the data sheet.

California SheepheadMore boxes filled with sheephead were delivered by the commercial crew and by late morning, the 60 sheephead quota were processed, and the team headed back to the landing.

As a footnote, all fillets from the three trips were kept on ice before being delivered to a local food bank.

The three-trip study of sampling for sheephead has been completed, and the results are being analyzed by CDFW. Those results will form the basis of a potential regulation for sheephead fillet length.

Additional images: https://gary-graham.smugmug.com/El-Dorado-Sheephead-Study-Trip/i-dDJhdWX

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Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world records and in his first year as a member of the Tuna Club of Avalon, he received more angling awards than any other first-year member in the club's 109-year history. He's been involved with many California angling clubs and is the Baja California Representative for the International Game Fish Association. 
Gary's a conservationist as well as a writer and photographer. In addition to two books on saltwater fly-fishing, hundreds of his articles and photographs have appeared in publications around the world. Graham has devoted his life to finding new fisheries and developing new techniques — all of which he shares through his guiding, speaking, photography and writing.