Abbreviated Life History of Cabezon
(Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)

Cabezon; Photo by Steve Lonhart of Simon/NOAA

The cabezon is the largest member of the cottid family. In Spanish cabezon means big-headed or stubborn, and, proportionally, the massive head is definitely the largest feature of this fish. The specific name marmoratus refers to the marbled or mottled appearance of the body, which can be reddish, greenish, or bronze.

Distribution, Stock Structure and Migration

Populations range along the eastern Pacific coast from Point Abreojos, Baja California to Sitka, Alaska. Cabezon normally occur nearshore and their depth range extends from the intertidal to 250 ft. As fish get older and larger they tend to migrate into deeper water. In shallower water they migrate in and out with the tide to feed.

Age and Growth

Cabezon have been aged to a maximum age of 17 yr for males and 16 yr for females. Total lengths corresponding to these ages were 25.5 in. and 28.5 in., respectively. The largest recorded size is 39 in. in length and over 25 pounds.

Reproduction, Fecundity and Seasonality

Limited information available on age at sexual maturity suggests in central California males begin to mature in their third year and all are mature by their fourth year. The smallest mature male cabezon observed measured from 13.3 to 13.5 in. TL, and the smallest mature female cabezon observed measured 17.5 in. TL. Some females begin to mature in their fourth year between 15 and 20 in. in length, and by the sixth year all females are sexually mature. In California, spawning commences in late October, peaks in January and continues until March. Females are oviparous, meaning they lay or spawn eggs. Females spawn their eggs on intertidal and subtidal, algae-free rocky surfaces, primarily in crevices and under rocks. Masses of the pale green or reddish eggs are up to18 in. in diameter and up to two to four inches thick. Males fertilize the eggs after spawning by the female, and the male guards the nest during the 2-3 week period that the eggs mature. Fish are very protective of the nests for the two to three weeks it takes the eggs to develop and hatch. Larvae are approximately 0.1 to 0.2 in. long at hatching and begin to settle out of the plankton at 0.6 to 0.9 inches.

Predator/Prey Relationships

Cabezon can be aptly described as "sit and wait" predators. Their mottled coloration lets them blend in with their surroundings as they sit motionless to wait for their next meal. With large, robust pectoral fins set low on the body and a powerful tail, they quickly lunge after unwary prey, engulfing it in their large mouth.

Adult fish eat crabs, small lobsters, mollusks (abalone, squid, octopi), small fish (including rockfishes), and fish eggs. Juveniles are taken by rockfishes and larger cabezon, as well as by lingcod and other sculpins.


Based on co-occurrence with adult and juvenile cabezon, demersal fishes associated with kelp beds and reef structure likely to compete with cabezon for food and space would include lingcod, greenlings, and rockfish species such as grass, gopher, black-and-yellow, China, quillback, copper, and vermilion.

Critical Habitat

Fish frequent subtidal habitats in or around rocky reef areas and under kelp beds. Usually solitary, juveniles and adults both are common on any rocky bottom area with dense algal growth. They are often in the vicinity of kelp beds, jetties, isolated rocky reefs or pinnacles, and in shallow tide pools. Most of their time is spent sitting in holes, on reefs, in pools, or on kelp blades beneath the canopy, but not actively swimming.

Status of Stocks

The third full assessment of the population status of cabezon was completed in 2009 for the population off the west coast of the United States. The first assessment was for a state-wide California cabezon stock in the year 2003 (Cope et al. 2004). The second assessment (Cope and Punt 2006) considered two sub-stocks (the northern California sub-stock and the southern California sub-stock), demarcated at Point Conception, CA. The current assessment retains the two California sub-stocks, also evaluating the population as a coast-wide California stock, and extends the assessment to a third sub-stock for cabezon in the waters off of Oregon. Cabezon were lightly exploited until the 1940s in California, particularly in northern California. Catches began to increase in southern California in the 1960s. Commercial catch has become a major source of removals in the last 15 years because of the developing live-fish fishery in California.

The lastest stock assessment indicates the Northern California Sub-stock was calculated to be at 45% of its virgin biomass. The Southern California Sub-stock was calculated to be at 60% of its virgin biomass.

Information on this page was originally presented in the Nearshore Fishery Management Plan (these profiles updated July, 2010).