California Sheephead

The Science

Born as a female, but often becomes male later in life.  

The Fishery

Commercially caught in California since the late 1800’s.  

The Seafood

Sheephead’s mild flavor and delicate texture lends itself to any recipe calling for white fish.  

The Science

Kristin Riser, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Taxonomic description

  • Juveniles are bright reddish-orange with large blue spots on fins. Adults are sexually dimorphic; males black with a red-pink midsection, along with red eyes and a prominent “sheep-like” head, females fully pink with a white underbelly and smaller [4]
  • Large Wrasse; can grow to be 16 kg (35 lbs.) and 1 m (3 ft.) long [4].
  • Have protruding teeth, used to prey on hard-shelled organisms.


  • Eastern Pacific from Point Conception in California, to Guadalupe Island (off northern central Baja California) and the Gulf of California, Mexico [3]

Life history

  • Incredibly long lived. Maximum known lifespan in the wild is 53 years, though most members of this species do not reach this age (in part due to fishing pressure).
  • Adults are sequential hermaphrodites, changing from fully functioning females to fully functioning males following size-advantage model. Sex change in this species is unidirectional [5].
  • Males establish a spawning territory during mating season (July-Sept.), and defend a group of females with which he breeds [5].


  • Inhabits rocky reef/kelp bed habitats, normally between 3-30 m deep [4].
  • Hunts in the day on sea urchins, bivalves, barnacles, and bryozoans [4].
  • Are a common prey of pinniped species such as the harbor seal and California sea lion [4].  
  • At night, takes refuge in crevices where it wraps itself in a mucous cocoon to hide scent from predators
  • Vulnerable to parasitic flatworm, but the mutualistic senorita fish cleans parasites from the fish’s skin and gills [4].
  • Subject to commercial fishing, popular species in the live aquarium trade in Asian countries [4]

The Fishery

Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

Seasonal availability

  • Open to boat-based commercial anglers from May 1, 2017 through February 28, 2018. Open to sport fishers and shore-based anglers year round [1].

Managing authority

  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife, included in the California Nearshore Fishery Management Plan [2].
  • Though not a federally monitored groundfish, this species is often encountered with those that are, and therefore is included in the management plan [2].

Gear type

  • Line and hook, trap (with a small proportion incidental catch in the offshore gillnet fishery) [1].  

Status of the fishery

  • At current level of exploitation across its range, considered ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [3].
  • Upper limit on historical population size in the species’ known habitat is 70,380,000. It is unclear what the population size is currently. However, increased fishing and lower overall catch indicate a decreasing population size [3].
  • Commercial bimonthly catch limit is 2000 lbs. (Jan-Feb.), and 2400 lbs. (May-December), with a minimum size limit of 13 inches total length [1].
  • Size and bag limits, fishing season, and classification under the Nearshore Fishery Management Plan are working in concert to keep Sheephead population at a healthy size, and act as precautionary measures due to low data availability [3].

Potential ecosystem impacts

  • A keystone predator of the purple sea urchin that limits urchin grazing on kelp. Removing this predator can result in an increase in urchin numbers and grazing pressure on kelp, with subsequent knock-on effects for kelp dependent species.  

The Seafood

Sea Hag Marina,

Edible portions

  • Targeted for its sizeable fillets, though other parts of the fish can be used for broths/stocks [6].

Description of meat

  • The meat is white and delicate, with a mild flavor [6].

Culinary uses

  • Large fillets, skin on or off depending on how the fish is to be prepared. Can also be cooked whole.  
  • The delicate flesh makes this fish hard to sauté. Common cooking methods include steamed, fried, or grilled [6]. This is a typical ocean white meat fish that can be used in a variety of recipes.

Nutritional information 

  • High in protein (96% DV), vitamin B12 (71% DV), and selenium (136% DV) [7]

Toxicity report

  • Not particularly vulnerable to any specific toxins, though care should be taken if caught in heavily polluted waters (offshore).

Seasonal availability

  • March-December. 


[1] Loke-Smith, K. 2011. Status of the Fisheries Report, California Sheephead. CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Marine Region, CA USA.

[2] Wright, N. 2002. Nearshore Fishery Management Plan. CA Department of Fish and Game, Marine Region, CA USA.

[3] Cornish, A. & Dormeier, M. 2006. Semicossyphus pulcher, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Web. Accessed: 29 May 2017.

[4] Doan, T. et al. 2012. Semicossyphus pulcher California sheephead. Web. Accessed: 29 May 2017.

[5] Sundberg, Michael. 2009. Gonadal Restructuring During Sex Transition in California Sheephead: a Reclassification Three Decades After Initial Studies. Bulletin, Southern California Academy of Sciences 108 (1): 16–28.

[6] Sarmiento, J. 2013. Target Species: California Sheephead. Web. Accessed: 29 May 2017.

[7] Nutrition Value. 2017. Fish, dry heat, cooked, sheepshead nutrition facts and analysis. Web. Accessed: 29 May 2017.