Most divers and anglers are familiar with the common kelp or calico bass. Even though Dr. Charles Frederick Holder of Tuna Club fame referred to them as "pests" back in the early 1900's, they are one of the favorite targets for anglers looking for a tasty meal. Yet how many are aware of their very close relative, the barred sand bass? Fishers certainly are as they have overtaken kelp bass as the more frequently landed fish in our waters. Both species are members of the sea bass family, Serranidae, which has between 450 and 500 species world-wide.
Barred sand bass don't wear the checkered calico sports jacket of their brothers and sisters. Instead they have several dusky vertical bars along the side of their body and one dark spot looking almost like a bulls eye. There are usually small spots on the head, which my former Cousteau colleague Dr. Milton Love referred to as freckles. The third spine on their dorsal fin is longer than the preceding or following two spines.
Barred sand bass are found from Santa Cruz to Magdalena Bay down in Baja, but are most common from Santa Barbara south. They prefer sandy bottom habitats that are near rocks, reefs and kelp forests. These fish are benthic or bottom dwellers, seldom rising more than 10 feet off the bottom. Although they have been reported as deep as 600 feet, barred sand bass are more commonly found above 100 feet.
They may be found singly, but most seem to prefer a little company of their own kind. They are just children aged two to five years when they mature sexually at seven to 10 1/2 inches. Unlike the kelp bass, this species appears able to change from female to male... although very few of them do. Spawning occurs from April into fall, peaking around July. They often form large mating groups over soft sand or mud bottoms at this time. The eggs and larvae drift with the plankton before settling out. Barred sand bass reach lengths of over 25 inches and may live 24 years.
The young 'uns feed on small crustaceans known as mysids and amphipods near the bottom. Older ones munch away on crabs, shrimp, octopus, squid, other molluscs and fish. I once filmed a barred sand bass trying to steal tidbits of a dead bat ray that was being guarded by a large sheep crab. The sand bass was much more successful than the more timid kelp bass in tearing off bits and pieces... while avoiding the powerful claws of the crab. It even scratched its itches by rubbing its body on the crab's hard exoskeleton before taking another mouthful!
Prior to World War II these fish, along with their close relatives, were not considered a popular catch. Both became so popular after the War that the commercial fishery for them had to be closed in 1953. In the late 1980's barred sand bas began exceeding kelp bass in the annual sport harvest. It was estimated that nearly two million of them were taken by anglers in 1988. A decade later they far outnumbered their relatives, but the catch had declined by almost 50% over the previous decade. The current size limit on these bass is twelve inches, and only 10 bass of all three local species (kelp, barred sand and spotted sand) may be in possession.
Unfortunately much of the effort focused on this species occurs during summer when they form their large spawning aggregations. Because of this, the California Department of Fish & Game believes that marine reserves will have to be designated in some areas dominated by sand or mud bottoms to ensure spawning is successful. Such areas are not usually considered as reserve areas due to the perception that their flat terrain makes them far less desirable as habitat than rocky reefs or kelp forests with three dimensional structure.
© 2008 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!
Barred sand bass resting on bottom and swimming through the water column;
dorsal spines flared and juvenile barred sand bass.
This document maintained by
Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia