Abbreviated Life History of California Sheephead
(Semicossyphus pulcher)

Sheephead; Photo by Steve Lonhart of Simon/NOAA

The California sheephead (sheephead) along with two other common southern California species, the rock wrasse (Halichoeres semicinctus), and the senorita (Oxyjulis californica) are members of the mostly tropical, worldwide wrasse family Labridae. The sheephead is easily distinguished from the others by its color pattern, greater body depth, and large size. Juvenile sheephead (less than 4 in. long) are orange with at least two white, horizontal stripes on the side and several black spots in the dorsal and anal fins. Adult males have a black head and tail, separated by a reddish middle section, while the females are uniformly pink or reddish. The males also have a prominent, fleshy bump on their foreheads.

Distribution, Stock Structure and Migration

California sheephead range from Monterey Bay, California, south into the Gulf of California. This species is not common north of Point Conception. Sheephead are found intertidally to about 280 ft. They are considered a resident, solitary species and no systematic movements have been described.

Age and Growth

Male sheephead have been aged at around 50 yr, and can achieve a length of 36 in. and a weight exceeding 40 pounds. Females have been aged to 30 years.

Reproduction, Fecundity and Seasonality

Sheephead are protogynous hermaphrodites, beginning life as females with older, larger females developing into secondary males. Female sexual maturity may occur in 3 to 6 yr and fishes may remain female for as long as 15 yr. The timing of the transformation to males involves the population sex ratio as well as the size of available males. Sheephead are sometimes seen in large schools, perhaps associated with spawning aggregations. Batch spawning occurs between July and September. Larval drift ranges from 34-78 days. Settlement size remains between 0.5 and 0.6 inches.

Predator/Prey Relationships

Sheephead feed by crushing their prey items with their enlarged jaw teeth. They have a broad diet, which includes crabs, barnacles, mollusks, and sea urchins. Because of its large adult size, sheephead have few known predators. Giant sea bass, moray eels, and harbor seals have been documented as predators of sheephead.

Competition

Smaller sheephead may compete with garibaldi, Hypsypops rubicundus, when they forage for food.

Critical Habitat

Sheephead inhabit nearshore rocky reefs, kelp beds, and surfgrass beds. They seem to prefer areas of high and low relief, but have also been observed foraging over sandy bottom habitat. Sheephead are resident on many artificial reefs in southern California. At night they often utilize rock crevices and holes to sleep.

Status of Stocks

In 2004, the first stock assessment was completed under the Marine Life Management Act Nearshore Fishery Management Plan. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife sponsored a stock assessment for California sheephead in southern California waters. This assessment moves the fishery to a "data moderate" status, and provides a more reliable scientific basis for further discussion. Aspects of biology and social structure are significantly different for sheephead than for the rockfishes, lingcod and cabezon that have already been assessed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. These differences present a challenge in considering which configuration of conservation and management measures will provide long-term sustainability.

Since the assessment, CDFW has contracted scientists, fishermen and academia to conduct research to help better quantify some of the uncertainties in the assessment and to determine if there have been changes in size and age in maturity and sex-change.

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

Sheephead