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California Sheephead

Scientific Name: Semicossyphus pulcher

Distribution: Monterey Bay to the Gulf of California and Isla Guadalupe.

Habitat: Found from the intertidal to 295 ft (90 m), but most abundant from subtidal to 180 ft (55 m). Commonly found near structure (kelp forest, rocky reefs, oil platforms, etc.) or interfaces between habitats (ecotone).

Behavior: California sheephead are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they start off life as females and later transition into males. One male generally guards a territory and a harem of females. Their coloration changes drastically from a juvenile female to a mature female, and then again to the male stages. California sheephead are a diurnal species and have been known to rest in the same location night after night. Home range of California sheephead varies according to habitat type but was found to be an average of 3.7 acres (15,134 m2). Juvenile sheephead have been known to clean other fish species. California sheephead eat a variety of benthic invertebrates including crabs, sea urchins, shrimp, barnacles, etc.

Why it is important: California sheephead are an important commercial and recreational fishery. These fish pose a unique management challenge because the commercial fishery takes smaller “plate size” individuals (usually females), and recreational anglers and spear-fishers select the largest sheephead (males). This results in the large males being taken out of the population and causes females to transition to males at smaller sizes, leading to lower fecundity (reproduction) in the population as a whole. California sheephead are also important for the ecosystem health of kelp forests as a consumer of sea urchins. If the urchin population becomes too great, the urchins consume all the kelp and a once productive ecosystem is transformed into an urchin barren.

Sources: FishBase, Topping et al. 2005, Love 2011

Quick Facts

Scientific Name: Semicossyphus pulcher

Conservation Status (IUCN): Vulnerable

Lifespan: 53 years

Age at Maturity: 3-6 years old, but varies by location

Maximum Weight: 40.4 lbs (18.4 kg)

Speed: Unknown

Maximum Length: 3 ft (91.4 cm)

Habitat: Temperate, coastal waters

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