Leopard Grouper

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea

The Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, whose common Spanish name is cabrilla sardinera and whose local name is sardinera (or queenie for the golden version), is a species in the Grouper or Epinephelidae Family, known collectively as cabrillas and garropas in Mexico. Globally, there are fifteen species in the genus Mycteroperca, eleven of which are found in Mexican waters, seven in the Atlantic and four in the Pacific.

The Leopard Groupers are dark gray-brown in color, and their heads, bodies, and fins are covered with small red-brown dots. Their bodies have dark saddles and pale vertical lines. All fins have very narrow white margins; their anal fin is pointed and their caudal fin has a uniform, non-ragged concave margin. Their mottled background tends to form irregular, interconnected bars on the sides of the body when the fish are alive. Shortly after collection these bars fade away, leaving a field of spots. Approximately 1% of the Leopard Groupers are Golden Phase (“xanthic”) and called Golden Groupers, Queenies, or occasionally Golden Cabrillas; these are easy to identify due to their spectacular, overall yellow or orange color. Queenies are morphologically identical to regularly-colored leopard groupers, and in fact, they all start out with the same drab, brownish skin. But, when they are about ten inches long, they become “star-struck” and suddenly change to gold. The condition is something akin to albinism which is “mosaicisum” where individual cells express a different phenotype akin to humans who have patches of skin with no color.

The Leopard Groupers are found in sea mouths and within reefs and rocky areas at depths up to 150 feet. They reach a maximum length of 1.00 meters (3 feet 4 inches) and weigh up to 15 kg (33 pounds). A Grouper Family Weight From Length Conversion Table has been included in this website to allow the accurate determination of a fish weight and a return to the ocean unharmed. They have a lifespan of at least seventeen years. They are voracious predators, feeding at dawn and dusk on Flatiron Herring, Harengula thrissina and Anchoveta, Cetengraulis mysticetus; juveniles feed on crustaceans and benthic fish. This species is accessible to surf fishermen from the beach in pre-dawn hours. Reproduction is gonochoric and aggregate broadcast spawning occurs from April through June.

In Mexican waters the Leopard Grouper are found from Magdalena Bay southward along the southwest coast of Baja and throughout the Sea of Cortez being more abundant in the central part of the Gulf; they are absent from waters adjacent the coastal mainland south to Guatemala.

The Leopard Grouper can be confused with the Sawtail Grouper, Mycteroperca prionura (tan color covered with brown oval blotches and spots; saw-like caudal fin) and the Goldspotted Sand Bass, Paralabrax auroguttatus (third dorsal spine three times longer than second dorsal spine).

The Leopard Groupers are one of the most important fish in the Sea of Cortez. They are considered an excellent food fish and are sold commercially. In late spring, they are a prime target of the sports fishing industry of the central Sea of Cortez.

From a conservation perspective the Leopard Grouper are currently considered to be VULNERABLE as they are a rare, long-lived, and large species with slow reproduction cycles and growth rates. They are probably protogynous with females changing to males at mid-life. They reside in a small geographic range and are targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen during spawning aggregations in April and May. Populations are believed to have declined by at least 50% over the last 10 years and it is anticipated that this population decline will continue. At present there are three small no-take zones in the Loreto Marine Park – Bajo del Murcielago, Bajo del Cochi, and Cabo Pulmo.

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, golden phase. Photo provided by the commercial fishermen of the greater Los Cabos area, Baja California Sur, June 2014.

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, golden phase. Fish caught from coastal waters off Loreto, Baja California Sur, April 2015. Length: 41 cm (16 inches). Catch and photo courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto.

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, spotted phase transitioning to golden phase. Both fish caught in coastal waters off  Agua Verde, Baja California Sur, February 2008. Length: 46 cm (18 inches) and 41 cm (16 inches), respectfully. Photo courtesy of Barry Mastro, Escondido, CA.

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, spotted phase. Fish caught from coastal waters off Loreto, Baja California Sur, April 2016. Length: 48 cm (19 inches).

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, spotted phase. Fish caught from coastal waters of Gonzaga Bay, Baja California, June 2016. Length: 40 cm (16 inches). Catch and photo courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto, Baja California Sur.

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, spotted phase. Fish caught out of the beach at Km 21, Cabo Real, Baja California Sur, October 2004. Length: 58 cm (23 inches).

Leopard Grouper, Mycteroperca rosacea, spotted phase. Fish caught out from coastal waters off Puerto Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, April 2005. Length: 60 cm (24 inches).