Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#273: Salema

I was looking over the more than 270 columns I've written the past six years and realized there are several fairly common species that I have yet to cover, so I decided this column would focus on a schooling member of the grunt family that we see frequently in the warmer months of the year. I'm referring to the California salema. When I began my Google search for tidbits of information to flesh out this column, I discovered that the most popular web pages for the word "salema" related to the Portuguese holiday destination on the Algarve coast, and a form of Arabic belly dance, or the dancer that performs it, on several streaming videos. Of course I spent most of my research time on the latter before moving on to fish ID websites.

I was surprised to find that there is another fish called the salema, but found in the Mediterranean, which produced vivid and terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations more severe than those induced by LSD in two men who ate it. This salema, a porgy known scientifically as Sarpa salpa, is a popular food fish and usually does not produce such poisonous effects. Other species from the Indo-Pacific region such as certain mullets, goatfish, damsels and surgeonfish are known as "icthyoallyeinotoxic" fish, and regularly produce such hallucinatory effects. Fortunately neither our salema, nor any of our other local species, fall into this category to the best of my knowledge.

Our salema is fairly distinctive, and therefore easy to identify. It is found almost exclusively in large schools rather than individually. There are 6-8 yellow-to-orange stripes running parallel along the length of the body. It has big eyes and a small mouth. The genus name Xenistius is Greek for "strange dorsal fin," referring to the fact that the second or soft dorsal fin looks very similar to the anal fin.

Salema have been recorded from the Monterey area south to Peru, although they are rarely encountered north of Pt. Conception. There is a related species, the longfin salema, which is found from the southern Sea of Cortez south. These shallow water fish are normally found over rocks and in kelp forests at depths above 35 feet. Their schools can be very large, and they often wind lazily through the kelp forests. Other species, including local grunts like sargo, may mix in with their schools. I was surprised to find that none of my resources mentioned the apparent seasonal nature of their distribution. I guess the marine biologists who supplied the information were warm water wussies, and only dive our waters in the summer!

Dr. Milton Love offered some interesting behavioral information I was totally unaware of. The schools disperse at night, and the individuals feed largely on their own. My assumption is that they school during day when visual predators like barracuda or possibly sea lions might be active, and break up at night when predation is less of a problem. Salema feed on plankton in the water column, including crustaceans such as amphipods and mysid shrimp, as well as worms.

I was surprised to find that salema were not included in Paul Humann's otherwise excellent book, Coastal Fish Identification: California to Alaska. To complete my research, I had to pull a dusty copy of Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez which was my "bible" when I worked down there for several years. It states the salema is common in the Sea of Cortez, but I don't ever remember seeing them there on all my dives over four years. According to this reference, the salema has been assigned to several different fish families including the snappers and its own family before coming to live with the other members of the grunt family. What a case of identity confusion (on the part of the scientists, not the salema!). However, they do exhibit unusual characteristics for grunts. The dorsal fin is completely divided, it has larger eyes and longer pectoral fins than other grunts, and they have oblique mouths suited for midwater feeding.

Adult salema reach nearly a foot in length. The females produce eggs which are pelagic, drifting in the plankton. This allows the young to disperse to new areas and exchange genetic material with other populations. Such dispersal helps prevent isolated populations from inbreeding too much.

One thing I've observed frequently on salema during the summer is a black blotchiness which I'm assuming is some sort of disease, perhaps bacterial. It may be that these pathogens gain an advantage during periods of warmer water. I've been suffering from a nasty pathogen the past week, largely bedridden with the flu. And I don't even heat my home.... I guess it's just my naturally hot body that gives them the habitat they need. Bleck!

© 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 "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," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass," "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" or the upcoming "Sharks and Rays of Southern California" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Salema in summertime

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia