Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#158: Yellowtail... Yahoo!

I've discovered over the past five years that there is a real drawback to filming underwater. In the days before I carried a camera, my head was looking straight forward and swiveling from side to side. Nothing escaped my eagle eyes (well that was in my youth before I had to get glasses). Now my eyes are often looking downward for interesting critters on the bottom, or they are focusing through the viewfinder which limits my scope to a mere 1/2 inch! There are still the times I go out specifically "hunting" black sea bass. My eyes are focused (as best they can these days) on what is in front, to the side and above me. Most of the bass don't try to scurry underneath my ample belly as I fin along.

A few weeks ago at Italian Gardens I discovered that even hunting for black sea bass can obscure other wondrous critters of the deep. Why a great white shark could swim by and I wouldn't be aware of it until I sensed the shadow above me. While filming several pair of courting black sea bass, I felt a cloud dim the light overhead. Without flinching a muscle, I looked up to see what it was. I was close to the bottom... a good strategy if the landlord wanders into your dive site. What I saw when I looked up was something quite rare and surprising, but of no danger to me.

Passing about 20 feet overhead was a school of perhaps 4-500 yellowtail! I was so shocked I barely got the camera up in time to record the tail end of the freight train passing over me. It was incredible. If I am lucky to see yellowtail at all, it is usually just a few individuals... or, at most, a few dozen. The school I saw above me had more yellowtail in it than the sum total of all the yellowtail I've seen in 36 years of diving here! I almost wished I had a speargun (but, since I don't have a valid California fishing license, it is a good thing I didn't). This school was phenomenal.

I started to ask around about such concentrations. Diver and spearfisher Jon Council said he had seen just such a school earlier on the same day off Pebbly Beach. They were "booking" towards Long Point so it is quite possible we saw the same group. Russ Armstrong said he used to see such huge schools off Cortes Bank two or three decades ago. This was certainly a first for me.

Fishermen are familiar with yellowtail. Of course I'd seen them up close several times too, including when we caught a number of them to hang as baits for the great white sharks off Guadalupe Island last December. They have a streamlined, hydrodynamically designed shape for speed. The body is silvery white and there is a yellow to darker stripe running along the side. They are members of the same family that contains the jacks and pompanos which I see frequently in the tropics.

Yellowtail are found from British Columbia to Chile along this coast, most commonly south of Santa Barbara in our region. The ones in our region are believed to migrate in from the area of Cedros Island off Baja. Some of the larger ones may be resident year-round. They are also known from temperate and subtropical seas worldwide. A hundred years ago they were said to turn the waters of Avalon Bay into "stormy" seas, causing church services to be let out early so parishioners (and the clergy) could fish!

Although they can reach lengths of 4-5 feet at their maximum age of twelve years, a three footer is seven years old. Individuals are sexually mature at 2-3 years old and 22-28 inches. A large yellowtail may produce nearly four million eggs in a single season. However, Planned Parenthood has no need to worry... most of these die as young (or are caught by hungry "fishers" of the human, bird and fish kind). Spawning is usually off Baja, but may occur in southern California during El Nino years. The larvae are rarely found more than 200 miles offshore. Squid and baitfish including mackerel, sardines and anchovies are their primary diet.

Charles F. Holder of Tuna Club and Pasadena Rose Parade fame talks about his first trip to Avalon in 1886. When he arrived there were many men and boys on the beach catching 20-35 pound yellowtail with cod lines. For those who think fish stocks haven't changed much over the years, consider the image that confronted Holder. How many of us "long-term" residents can say we saw such abundance? I happened to talk to Bill Hill the other day who said he remembered guys catching yellowtail off the Steamer Pier in the 1930's. Had we been able to gather baseline data from that early era in Catalina's history, we'd have a much better idea of how much things have changed.

For more recent residents, the same thing can be observed in the decline of billfish stocks in our waters over the past 3-4 decades. Of course marine reserves would do little to protect these larger migratory fish like yellowtail, marlin and swordfish. However, we do need a much better conservation ethic and fisheries management practices if our children and grandchildren are going to be able to see some of these wonders... either as divers or fishers.

© 2005 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. Buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD so you can take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Images of the huge yellowtail school at Italian Gardens.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia