Surf Fish Population Study

Surf fishes form the basis of a very popular recreational fishery in southern California. In 2008 an estimated 576,000 angler trips were made by nearshore anglers who caught surfperch, croakers, or California corbina, according to RecFIN data.

Despite the predominance of sandy beaches in the Southern California Bight (SCB), relatively little information exists on the surf zone fish community. In particular, spatial and temporal abundance information on surf fishes is lacking. The objectives of this study are to determine changes in surf fish abundances over time, among sites with differing exposure to wave action, and relative to tide heights and tidal movements. Results from this study will be compared to similar CDFW studies completed in the 1950s and 1990s.

Study Methods

Monthly beach seine sets at four sites (Bolsa Chica State Beach, Seal Beach, Belmont Shore, Hermosa Beach) within the SCB were conducted from May 2007 through September 2009. Beach seines are fishing nets with floats at the top and weights at the bottom to keep them open. Nets are set in about 10 feet of water and dragged to shore along the ocean bottom. Every fish caught in the net was identified, measured, and released. Sport fishes of interest (California corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, barred surfperch, and walleye surfperch) that were large enough to hold a t-bar tag and appeared to be in good condition were tagged prior to release. You may view pictures of these and other common surf zone fishes (PDF).

What to do if you catch a tagged fish

Each tag has a unique ID number and a CDFW phone number for anglers to call when they catch a tagged fish. Anglers are asked to provide the following information when reporting a tagged fish:

  • tag number
  • date caught
  • general location or GPS coordinates
  • total length (estimated or measured)
  • any additional information

Flyers (PDF) have been posted at local bait shops and piers to inform anglers about the study. Results from this tagging study will help determine the seasonal and annual movement patterns of these fishes.

Findings to Date

As of September 2009, project staff have completed 386 hauls and caught 31,631 fish consisting of 47 species. The average number of fish per haul was around 82, but as many as 2,200 fish have been caught in a single haul.

Rank Species Scientific Name Abundance
1 queenfish Seriphus politus 8601
2 Pacific sardine Sardinops sagax 4298
3 yellowfin croaker Umbrina roncador 4285
4 walleye surfperch Hyperprosopon argenteum 2257
5 topsmelt Atherinops affinis 2175
6 California corbina Menticirrhus undulatus 1858
7 round stingray Urobatis halleri 1830
8 salema Xenistius californiensis 1119
9 jacksmelt Atherinopsis californiensis 1014
10 spotfin croaker Roncador stearnsii 972
11 barred surfperch Amphistichus argenteus 507
12 deepbody anchovy Anchoa compressa 484
13 white croaker Genyonemus lineatus 435
14 bat ray Myliobatis californica 244
15 California halibut Paralichthys californicus 234
16 shovelnose guitarfish Rhinobatos productus 234
17 shiner perch Cymatogaster aggregata 228
18 striped mullet Mugil cephalus 125
19 jack mackerel Trachurus symmetricus 113
20 white seabass Atractoscion nobilis 98
21 Pacific barracuda Sphyraena argentea 96
22 Pacific chub mackerel Scomber japonicus 91
23 leopard shark Triakis semifasciata 65
24 California needlefish Strongylura exilis 55
25 gray smoothhound Mustelus californicus 36
26 barred sand bass Paralabrax nebulifer 25
27 barcheek pipefish Syngnathus exilis 24
28 white seaperch Phanerodon furcatus 21
29 California butterfly ray Gymnura marmorata 17
30 Pacific pompano Peprilus simillimus 12
30 zebraperch Hermosilla azurea 12
31 diamond turbot Pleuronichthys guttulatus 9
31 northern anchovy Engraulis mordax 9
32 Pacific staghorn sculpin Leptocottus armatus 7
32 thornback Platyrhinoidis triseriata 7
33 black perch Embiotoca jacksoni 6
33 giant kelpfish Heterostichus rostratus 6
34 dwarf perch Micrometrus minimus 4
35 California grunion Leruresthes tenuis 3
35 kelp bass Paralabrax clathratus 3
35 pile perch Rhacochilus vacca 3
36 hornyhead turbot Pleuronichthys verticalis 2
36 Mexican lookdown Selene brevoortii 2
36 sargo Anisotremus davidsonii 2
37 black croaker Cheilotrema saturnum 1
37 bonefish Albula sp. A 1
37 speckled sanddab Citharichthys stigmaeus 1

List of fish species caught from May 2007 to September 2009.

Abundance ranks of selected fishes caught by beach seine in three different CDFW studies/time periods.

Abundance ranking of selected fishes caught by beach seine in three different CDFW studies/time periods.

Tag Recaptures

  • 3,270 fish have been tagged
  • 18 fish have been recaptured
    • 9 barred surfperch
    • 3 California corbina
    • 2 spotfin croaker
    • 4 yellowfin croaker
  • The greatest distance between tagging and recovery locations was the eight miles a large spotfin croaker traveled between the south end of Seal Beach and Huntington Beach pier.

Interesting Trends

Average catch per unit effort (CPUE) by season for five popular sport fishes, June 2007 through August 2009

Average CPUE by season for five popular sport fishes, May 2007 through September 2009.
Error bars denote one standard error.

Barred surfperch abundance remained relatively constant throughout all seasons, while spotfin croaker and California corbina abundances peaked in the summer and were lowest during the winter. Those seasonal differences may be due to inshore-offshore or upcoast-downcoast movements. Subsequent analyses suggest the dramatic increase in yellowfin croaker numbers in the spring was primarily due to increased numbers of young-of-the-year (YOY) in the catch. Increased walleye surfperch abundances in summer and fall were also due to an increase in abundance of YOY.

Tide height and flux for five popular sport fishes when catch per unit of effort (CPUE) was highest.

Tide height and flux for five popular sport fishes when CPUE was highest.
Fish illustrations used in this figure were provided by Dr. Larry Allen.

Although individuals of each species were caught throughout the tide cycle and at all tide heights, California corbina and spotfin croaker were more abundant during lower incoming tides, while barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, and walleye surfperch were more abundant during slightly higher outgoing tides.

Interesting Finds

At Seal Beach, CA in November 2008 two Mexican lookdown, Selene brevoortii, juveniles were captured. The typical range for Mexican lookdown is from the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico to Panama, although adult specimens have been documented in south San Diego Bay during the 1997-98 El Niño event. This is the first documented occurrence of juvenile Mexican lookdown in California. The juvenile specimens represent an approximate 100 km northern range expansion from the Mexican lookdown's northernmost range boundary. Both specimens are now housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History fish collection (LACM 56886-1), and a scientific note has been published in the quarterly periodical California Fish and Game.

Juvenile Mexican lookdown, Selene brevoortii, caught at Seal Beach on November 18, 2008. 63 mm standard length (SL)Juvenile Mexican lookdown, Selene brevoortii, caught at Seal Beach on November 18, 2008. 61 mm standard length (SL)

Two juvenile Mexican lookdown, Selene brevoortii, caught at Seal Beach on November 18, 2008.
(a) 63 mm standard length (SL); (b) 61 mm SL.