Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#208: Look Who's Munching Now!

I've written on several occasions about why I feel spearfishing is an appropriate way to harvest food from the sea... as long as it is done legally. A recent experience on the King Neptune with my occasional dive buddy and avid spearfisher, Tim Mitchell, brought that to the forefront once more. Those of you who fish, and those of you who eat what they catch, are undoubtedly aware that Catalina's waters are teeming with piscean (fish) predators. I watched as dozens of bonito were taken by rod-and-reel fishers off Casino Mole. Underwater I have had the experience of hundreds if not thousands of bonito, barracuda and yellowtail passing (at a respectful distance) in front of my camera. Others have seen rarer, more tropical species like the dorado (or mahi mahi).

Now Tim is very fond of yellowtail. I'm not sure they return the feeling, but who could blame them as Tim (and his wife Jessica) are fond... of eating them. Can't say I blame them for even with my minimal culinary skills I've managed to create edible dinners from these fish. Why, I've even cooked them Cajun style, blackened (although not intentionally). On many of our recent trips aboard Scuba Luv's King Neptune we have encountered many tasty meals... er fish... at the chosen dive sites. One of the great things about spearfishing is that a good hunter can be selective in what he takes... there is no unwanted bycatch.

Tim went down, speargun in hand, to catch their evening dinner. He returned with a nice yellowtail attached to his spear tip. Mission successful. And this dinner was not farm raised, infiltrated with antibiotics, dyed with unnatural food color or wrapped in plastic as one might find in a grocery meat (or fish) section. Of course, I must admit that I have much greater success "hunting" at Vons than I do underwater. What about this meal Tim harvested?

Many think yellowtail are members of the tuna family. Actually they are a species of the family Carangidae which includes the jacks and pompanos. Their torpedo shape makes them very hydrodynamic and therefore fast swimmers. There is a yellowish or dusky stripe along their silvery sides and a dark bar extending across each eye. On "our" coast they may be found from British Columbia to Chile, although they are generally only common from Santa Barbara south. Elsewhere they have a worldwide distribution in temperate and subtropical waters. They are generally seen fairly close to the surface in the upper 20 feet of the water column. However I recently filmed one rubbing against the bottom at about 80 feet, probably to remove parasites.

Yellowtail are a migratory species, generally entering our waters in spring. Dr. Milton Love reports that scientists learned from early tagging studies that the fish in our waters come from their winter headquarters in central Baja, especially Cedros Island. I guess that makes them "snowbirds" or, more appropriately, "snowfish." I guess they may be related to my parents. Yellowtail usually form good sized schools. However they may also be found individually or in small groups. I have also observed them in association with barracuda schools... maybe those individuals flunked out of their own schools.

These fish grow rapidly on a diet of baitfish like Pacific and jack mackerel, anchovies and sardines, and take squid or pelagic red crabs for a little dietary diversity. They have been observed working together to herd and feed on schools of baitfish. After one year they are a foot and a half long and sexually mature at about 22" (their legal size) to 28" when they are two to three years old. They have been known to reach five feet... good luck with one of those, Tim! Depending on their size, a female yellowtail may produce between about half a million and four million eggs.

Early expeditions along the West Coast spoke of the Native Americans catching fish that probably were yellowtail, and more modern archaeologists find their bones in the middens. Charles F. Holder, co-founder of Avalon's Tuna Club, wrote about yellowtail seen on his first visit to the island in 1886. Fishers were out in numbers casting thick cod hand-lines in the waters and catching 20-35 pound yellowtail. Some of the hooked fish were big enough to break the stout lines. I have heard similar stories from local "old timers" (something I'm too rapidly becoming) into the 1920's and 30's. I think Tim would love to go back to those thrilling days of yesterday... as long as he could return to Jessica and the present with the day's catch!

© 2006 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. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

A solitary yellowtail checking me out, a large school passing by me;
Tim with his catch... and a close up of another.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia