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Sheepshead Threatened

California sheepshead are one of the most unique and interesting fish that populate the waters of Southern California. They are one of the largest species of wrasse and unlike most wrasse are delicious to eat (I can personally confirm this). Sheepshead identifies as protogynous hermaphrodites which means they always start life as a female and as they get older transform into males. The interesting thing about this process is that nobody really knows when this change occurs. The change can easily be identified as male fish will have distinct black stripes on their head and tail though this change can be observed from when fish are 8 inches long to when they are nearly 2 feet. Most scientists believe that it has a large part of when they are responsible for defending territory against other fish as well as certain environmental and pressure measures. The main problem that these fish are facing however has a large part to do with this difference in sex. These fish are a heavily targeted species in Southern California as they occupy many kelp and reef environments where other popular gamefish reside. They are also not the sharpest tool in the shed which results in limits (5 fish at least 12 inches) getting caught in minutes if a school of them is found. However there are still a ton of these critters and they grow and breed at around the same speed of calico bass which are thriving in their current state. So why are these fish labeled as threatened? It mainly has to do with the ratio of females to males in their habitat. Since the change of sex occurs on average at the legal limit of the fish, significantly more males are taken compared to females. This has led to an extreme skew in the ratio of males to females which leads to less breeding within the species. If you look at a fish like the calico bass where the legal limit and bag size are extremely similar they are doing fine because the ratio of males to females stays constant so there is no problem with their breeding rates. Sheepshead are experiencing a decline in their population because they can’t grow at a fast enough rate to keep up with the extreme demand from fishermen. Now that you understand a little bit about the predicament that these fish are facing, here is why it matters. Sheepshead are one of the prime consumers of sea urchins in California. They use their gnarly looking teeth to crush shellfish like potato chips, and it is mainly the larger (above 12 inches) fish that are eating the urchins. If you would recall from a previous article urchins are destroying kelp forests at an alarming rate which has led to a loss in habitat for hundreds of Southern Califonia’s beloved sea creatures. With all of the larger, urchin-eating fish being removed by fishermen the urchins are making slight headway in coming back with their efforts to decimate the kelp forests. This is why it is important to protect these fish and put stricter regulations on the amount that fishermen are allowed to keep. The CCA in California has some really interesting proposals on their Instagram that I believe are a solid balance between giving the fishermen and the conservationists what they want. The problem is that there is a pushback against this proposal because a lot of anglers don’t understand the concept of the changing sex that is preventing a large amount of reproduction. Another issue is the extraordinarily high catch and release mortality rate on these fish. People are pulling these guys up from 300 feet and their swim bladder almost always have to be popped to get them back down. This messes up their ability to swim and severely decreases their lifespan. Overall if you’re going rockfishing any time soon try not to go on cattle boats as they always want high numbers on their sites and give little regard to conservation. Private sportfishing boats are usually much more open-minded and you can tell them to avoid locations with sheepshead or they might already be aware of the situation. If you’re going on your own accord I really suggest staying away from areas with sheepshead and if you do find them then try to keep this article in the back of your mind before you decide to keep the fish or not

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