Cowcod, Sebastes levis

The Cowcod, Sebastes levis, whose common Spanish name is rocote vaquilla, is a member of the Scorpionfish or Scorpaenidae Family, known collectively as escorpiónes, lapons or rocotes in Mexico. Globally, there are 124 species in the genus Sebastes, of which 49 are found in Mexican waters, all in the Pacific.

The Cowcods have deep and somewhat compressed bodies with a very high incised first dorsal fin. Adults vary in color from cream, pink, salmon, orange, or gold. Some adults have subtle dark or red vertical bars. Juveniles have gold or brown vertical bars over a clear, white or pale gold background and are very difficult to distinguish from other look-alike juvenile rockfish. They have a large head with small eyes and a large mouth with a projecting lower jaw. They are covered with spines. Their anal fin has three spines and six to eight rays; their caudal fin is concave; their dorsal fin has 13 or 14 spines and 12 to 14 rays; and their pectoral fins have 17 to 19 rays. They have 29 to 33 gill rakers and their body is covered with scales.

The Cowcods are bottom dwellers found as solitary and highly territorial individuals near shelter over rock structures, at the base of oil platforms, or within kelp forests at depths up to 1,690 feet. They reach a maximum length of 1.0 meters (3 feet 3 inches) and weight of 13.2 kg (29 pounds) with females being slightly larger than males. They are normally found in waters between 7.7oC (46oF) and 12.4oC (54oF). They are ambush predators that feed on benthic crabs, octopus, shrimp, and small fish. Reproduction is viviparous with each female releasing between 181,000 and 1.925 million pelagic eggs. They have a lifespan of up to 55 years and date to 6 million years.

In Mexican waters the Cowcods have a very limited distribution being found from Guerrero Negro northward along the central and northwest coasts of Baja.

The Cowcod is easy to recognize and cannot be confused with any other species, however, the juvenile Cowcod is similar to other juvenile rockfish that have bars on their sides including Bronzestriped, Flag, Redbanded, Tiger, and Treefish Rockfish, all of which lack spotting on their bars or have upturned mouths.

The Cowcods are considered an excellent food fish and have historically been targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Fishing interest has significantly diminished recently due to low catch rates and they are currently considered “overfished” in all parts of their range. They are listed as a species of Special Concern by NOAA. In California, fishing for Cowcod has been banned with a 5,100 square mile area off Southern California being closed to all bottom fishing as a conservation measure to help Cowcod survival with this species not expected to recover until 2060.

Cowcod, Sebastes levis. Fish caught from coastal waters off Ensenada, Baja California, April 2017. Length: 31 cm (12 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Fullerton, CA.