Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

076: Ocean Whitefish

The ocean whitefish is one species that few can really appreciate unless they are SCUBA divers. I find observing them in the Dive Park to be an interesting experience since they seem to be quite aware of, and affected by, my presence.

The whitefish is the only local member of the tilefish family. They are found from Vancouver Island, Canada, to Peru and the Galapagos Islands but are most common south of Point Conception. They are reportedly found in aggregations over rocks, kelp or other high relief bottoms, but I more often observe them as individuals feeding over sandy bottoms in the Dive Park. They can be seen from shallow water to depths of 450 feet. Dr. Milton Love at UCSB reports the largest fish in aggregations from 90-200 feet deep with smaller fish in shallower water. Occasionally I have seen substantial aggregations here in water as shallow as 20-30 feet.

It is an elongated fish with long dorsal and anal fins that have some yellow and blue coloration. Their bodies are tan or brown on the dorsal surface and sides, and white underneath. At two years they are about a foot long, adding another foot in the next four years. Large fish may reach lengths of 40 inches. Their reproductive history is still a bit uncertain. Whitefish appear to spawn from early spring possibly into fall. Strangely one study found no larvae in the plankton sampled off southern California, but plenty year-round off Baja.

Whitefish eat mainly invertebrates in or near the bottom including crabs, shrimp, worms, squid, octopi and small fishes. Observing them feed is quite interesting. The whitefish hovers above the soft bottom, obviously aware of my presence. Once it realizes that I'm not a predator, it puts its head down a few inches above the sand and blows a jet of water out of its small mouth. This stirs up the sand and exposes potential food buried near the surface.

Ocean whitefish are a popular fish with party boat passengers and they may make up over 5% of the total marine recreational in some areas of southern California. In the past some of the largest whitefish were taken off the northern Channel Islands, especially Santa Rosa. C. F. Holder, co-founder of the Tuna Club, reported catching numerous whitefish in 1910 off San Clemente with Gifford Pinchot who was one of the "architects" of our National Park system. Back in the 1920's and 1930's there was a fairly significant commercial fishery for this species. Today a much smaller number are taken.

© 2004 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.

Upper: Ocean whitefish staring at Dr. Bill, preparing to feed; Lower: feeding on
sandy bottoms by blowing jets of water to expose invertebrates

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia