Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#172: Not Your Lucy Liu Ling (Cod)

Recently I described the bat sea star observed while on my deepest Catalina dive off Ship Rock. The subject of this week's column, the lingcod, was also observed on that dive but during one of my off-gassing safety stops near 60 feet. I rarely see lingcod off Catalina because they are a colder water fish. I prefer to dive the "warmer" waters between Long Point and the East End, and at shallower depths than lingcod are normally seen here. I have often observed and filmed them in shallower waters off the northern Channel Islands where the cold, south-flowing California Current has a pronounced effect.

Although lingcod are also known simply as Ling, they are not named after the character Lucy Liu played on "Allie McBeal." She (sigh) is much more attractive than these rather ugly looking fish (and could be my dive buddy any time)! According to Dr. Milton Love (whose book is a major source of information on fish), other common names include cultus, blue cod, greenlinger. slinky linky, kin matsu (in Japan) and bacalao (in Mexico).

Lingcod are known from Ensenada in northern Baja to as far north as the western Aleutian Islands in Alaska and possibly the Bering Sea. They are a bottom dwelling species that has been observed from the intertidal to depths in excess of 1,500 feet. Because they prefer colder water, they are most often found at deeper depths (> 100 ft.) in the southern part of their range which includes Catalina. Scientific studies have shown that lingcod prefer water temperatures under 50 degrees which explains why I rare see them! I prefer them over 70 degrees although my new wetsuit and vest make me quite toasty even in the low 50's.

Lingcod are long, somewhat slender fish that are almost eel-like in shape. They may reach lengths up to five feet and live for 20 years. The body color can be quite variable in this species. It may range from a very dark black or brown to lighter shades of green, with lighter spots frequently observed. When you face off with a lingcod underwater, they look quite vicious since the mouth is full of sharp canine teeth (somewhat like mine).

This species becomes sexually mature at approximately 20-24" in length off central California although the actual size may vary elsewhere in its range. Females tend to grow faster than males, so they are usually mature at a larger size than males born in the same year. Unlike humans, the males don't catch up and out-distance the ladies with a spurt of growth after sexual maturity. Females may produce several thousand to nearly half a million eggs each season. Timing of mating is very dependent on what part of their range you are in. In our waters eggs are laid in protected crevices or caves during winter with the peak from late December to early February in nests up to 2 1/2 feet wide. The eggs start off pink in color but later turn white.

The male guards the eggs for 2-3 months until they hatch. There are a number of potential predators on the eggs, so the male has to pay attention throughout that period. Egg predators may include snails, crabs and other fish. Some of these may find themselves ending up as food for the hungry male. Once hatched, the larvae enter the open water and swim or drift with the currents until they settle to the bottom. By the time they celebrate their first birthday they are about one foot long and reach a length of one yard in 7-10 years.

Young lingcod up to about 3" swim in the open water but settle to the bottom as they grow. They may be found in a wide range of habitats including soft bottoms, bays and eelgrass beds. Adults are typically found on soft bottoms in deeper waters, but may move into rocky bottom and reef areas as they age. According to Dr. Milton Love , males appear to prefer shallower depths than females. Now I don't want any of the ladies reading this to interpret that as meaning the males are "shallower" in general!

From the canines you can probably guess that this fish is not some "namby pamby" (what does that mean anyway?) vegetarian, but a voracious carnivore like me. They will eat almost any fish that wanders their way (I'm more selective) as well as squid and octopuses. In turn, they are eaten by marine mammals including the California sea lion, and at least one semi-aquatic marine mammal who is an occasional dive buddy of mine (right, Tim!).

They are also popular with recreational fishers using hook-and-line in addition to spear fishers. In the northern part of our state, lingcod may account for up to 7% of the recreational catch. The flesh of some lingcods is green in color, but that disappears upon cooking. Native American tribes also ate this fish regularly as evidenced by their bones in kitchen middens.

© 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. Look for my new DVD on the giant sea bass to be released in January.

Lingcod observed at Ship Rock (two left images) and in shallower depths
at colder San Miguel Island (two right images).

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