California Sheephead

The Science

This fish is born as a female, but often becomes male later in life!

The Fishery

This fish has been 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

swimming California sheephead
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]
  • As a large wrasse, it 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.

Distribution

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

Life history

  • This fish is incredibly long lived. Its 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).
  • This fish is a sequential hermaphrodite as an adult, changing from a fully functioning female to fully functioning male after reaching a certain size. Sex change in this species is unidirectional. [5]
  • As a male, this fish establishes a spawning territory during mating season (July-Sept.), and defends a group of females with which he breeds. [5]

Habitat

  • It inhabits rocky reef/kelp bed habitats, normally between 3-30 m deep. [4]
  • It hunts in the day for sea urchins, bivalves, barnacles, and bryozoans. [4]
  • This fish is a common prey of pinniped species such as the harbor seal and California sea lion. [4]
  • At night, it takes refuge in crevices where it wraps itself in a mucous cocoon to hide scent from predators.
  • The California sheephead is vulnerable to parasitic flatworms, but the mutualistic senorita fish cleans parasites from the fish’s skin and gills. [4]

The Fishery

California sheephead and ocean whitefish on ice
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

Seasonal availability

  • Commercial fishing is subject to bimonthly trip limits, and the fishery is typically closed from March to April due to closures for rockfish. [1]

Regulatory and 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

  • This fish is caught with line and hook, and traps (with a small proportion incidental catch in the offshore gillnet fishery). [1]

Status of the fishery

  • At the current level of exploitation across its range, it is considered ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. [3]
  • The 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]
  • 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

  • This fish is 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

Cooked fish filet with vegetables, rice, and garnish
Sea Hag Marina, archive.constantcontact.com

Edible portions

  • The whole fish can be eaten, and can be used in fish stock as well. [6]

Description of meat

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

Culinary uses

  • This fish yields large fillets with skin on or off depending on how the fish is to be prepared. It 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.

References

[1] California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2019. California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher, Enhanced Status Report. Web. https://marinespecies.wildlife.ca.gov/california-sheephead/management/. Accessed 27 August 2020.

[2] Nearshore Fishery Management Plan. n.d. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Web. https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/NFMP. Accessed 20 August 2020. 

[3] Cornish, A. & Dormeier, M. 2006. Semicossyphus pulcher, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Web. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/61340/0. Accessed 29 May 2017.

[4] Doan, T. et al. 2012. Semicossyphus pulcher California sheephead. Web. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Semicossyphus_pulcher/#references. 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. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4386901/. Accessed 27 August 2020.

[6] Sarmiento, J. 2013. Target Species: California Sheephead. Web. http://www.socalsalty.com/general/target-species-california-sheephead-2/. Accessed 29 May 2017.

[7] Nutrition Value. 2017. Fish, dry heat, cooked, sheepshead nutrition facts and analysis. Web. https://www.nutritionvalue.org/Fish%2C_dry_heat%2C_cooked%2C_sheepshead_nutritional_value.html. Accessed 29 May 2017.