California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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. Adobe Reader required

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 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
1queenfishSeriphus politus8601
2Pacific sardineSardinops sagax4298
3yellowfin croakerUmbrina roncador4285
4walleye surfperchHyperprosopon argenteum2257
5topsmeltAtherinops affinis2175
6California corbinaMenticirrhus undulatus1858
7round stingrayUrobatis halleri1830
8salemaXenistius californiensis1119
9jacksmeltAtherinopsis californiensis1014
10spotfin croakerRoncador stearnsii972
11barred surfperchAmphistichus argenteus507
12deepbody anchovyAnchoa compressa484
13white croakerGenyonemus lineatus435
14bat rayMyliobatis californica244
15California halibutParalichthys californicus234
16shovelnose guitarfishRhinobatos productus234
17shiner perchCymatogaster aggregata228
18striped mulletMugil cephalus125
19jack mackerelTrachurus symmetricus113
20white seabassAtractoscion nobilis98
21Pacific barracudaSphyraena argentea96
22Pacific chub mackerelScomber japonicus91
23leopard sharkTriakis semifasciata65
24California needlefishStrongylura exilis55
25gray smoothhoundMustelus californicus36
26barred sand bassParalabrax nebulifer25
27barcheek pipefishSyngnathus exilis24
28white seaperchPhanerodon furcatus21
29California butterfly rayGymnura marmorata17
30Pacific pompanoPeprilus simillimus12
30zebraperchHermosilla azurea12
31diamond turbotPleuronichthys guttulatus9
31northern anchovyEngraulis mordax9
32Pacific staghorn sculpinLeptocottus armatus7
32thornbackPlatyrhinoidis triseriata7
33black perchEmbiotoca jacksoni6
33giant kelpfishHeterostichus rostratus6
34dwarf perchMicrometrus minimus4
35California grunionLeruresthes tenuis3
35kelp bassParalabrax clathratus3
35pile perchRhacochilus vacca3
36hornyhead turbotPleuronichthys verticalis2
36Mexican lookdownSelene brevoortii2
36sargoAnisotremus davidsonii2
37black croakerCheilotrema saturnum1
37bonefishAlbula sp. A1
37speckled sanddabCitharichthys stigmaeus1

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 Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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.