Creature Feature: 10/1/13 Revealed

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MSI prides itself on having a space that serves our dual goals of teaching about the wonders of San FranciscoBay and protecting the species that inhabit it. Our multiple aquaria serve as a temporary home for dozens of watery denizens. The ability to see up close, and even touch this incredible diversity of organisms, is an important part of driving home our educational lessons.

Reading about a fish from a text book or field guide is one thing, but to see its flashing colors and how it moves through water, or to feel its scales makes each encounter unforgettable.

One of MSI ocean ambassadors is a beautiful fish unknown to many; despite its flamboyant colors… it is the cabezon, or Scorpaenichthys marmoratus. It’s common name means “big headed” in Spanish. And if that weren’t bad enough, the Latin name means “marbled scorpionfish,” which may soon be changed since they are actually the largest members of the sculpins, Family Cottidae.

Yup, even scientists makemistakes!

The largest member of the sculpin family, the cabezon can weigh up to 25 pounds and grow up to 2.5 feet long. They are found in the Pacific Ocean from southeastern Alaska to southern California, often on rocky ocean bottoms as deep as 50 fathoms (or 300 feet). There, the cabezon sits without moving, waiting until a tasty meal comes by, and then… ambush! Its big mouth can gulp up lots of marine creatures such as mollusks, crustaceans, other fish, and fish eggs.

The cabezon mostly likes to keep to itself, but males and females come together to spawn on rocky outcrops, where they also make nests. The males kindly stick around for two to three weeks to guard the eggs until it’s hatching time. Fortunately their job is made a little bit easier by the fact that their roe (or fish eggs) are poisonous to many birds and mammals, including us humans!

As the young grow up, they travel in from the open sea to tide pools, then later move on to reefs and kelp forests. With poisonous spines on its fin rays and an aggressive attitude, the adult cabezon is good competition for other bottom dwelling fish. They can camouflage themselves by changing color to match their background, but are still preyed upon by animals such as harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, birds, and humans. Although some people are put off by their odd outward appearance, the cabezon is caught by many humans for food.

Fisheries for cabezon were largely recreational until the 1990s, when the live fish trade became more popular in California. Capturing and selling live fish brings in greater revenue, so the accidental fact that this fish lacks a swim bladder (which, if present, can burst and kill fish brought up from the depths) made this species a new popular target. State fishery regulations have been growing more stringent up and down the coast to ensure their sustainability.

California has led the world in establishing a state-wide network of Marine Protected Areas. Cabezon, because they are highly territorial and long-lived, are just the type of fish to benefit most from such measures.

Current California Ocean Recreational Fishing Regulations: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mapregs5.asp#cabezon_open

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