Ocean Whitefish

Ocean Whitefish, Caulolatilus princeps

The Ocean Whitefish, Caulolatilus princeps, whose common Spanish name is pierna and who is known locally as amarillo pierna, is a member of the Tilefish or Malacanthidae Family, known collectively as blanquillos in Mexico. Globally, there are ten species in the genus Caulolatilus, seven of which are found in Mexican waters, five in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific.

The Ocean Whitefish have robust rectangular elongated bodies with a uniform depth throughout their length that is 24 to 27% of standard length. They are yellow-brown dorsally and fade to white ventrally. Their anal and dorsal fins have three bands: wide yellow near the body, light blue in the middle, and thin yellow on the margins. Their caudal fin is broad with a yellow tinge. Their pectoral fins are long and pointed with a blue tinge and a central yellow stripe near the margin. They lose their brilliant coloration shortly after death. They have a relatively deep head with a steep profile, a small mouth with thick fleshy lips that reach the front of the eyes, and serrated gill covers with one short blunt spine. Their anal fin has one or two spines and 22 to 26 rays; their caudal fin is deeply forked in adults; their dorsal fin has 7 to 10 spines and 24 to 27 rays. Both anal and dorsal fins have very long bases. Males and females are similar in appearance and unlike their close relative, the Pacific Golden-Eyed Tilefish, are also similar in size. Their body is covered with rough scales.

The Ocean Whitefish are found demersal in loose aggregations in relatively deep waters that are reef associated and can also be found over sandy and muddy bottoms at depths up to 620 feet. They are reported to have a maximum length of 1.02 meters (3 feet 4 inches) and a maximum weight of 5.8 kg (13 pounds). They are a slow-growing and medium-lived species. They feed upon small organisms including crabs, other crustaceans, shrimps, euphausiids, small octopuses, squids, and various small fish, especially anchovy and lanternfish. In turn they are preyed upon by giant sea bass, sharks, and other large fish; juveniles are preyed upon by albacore. They spawn annually during the winter months with eggs and larvae being pelagic. It is believed that the waters of Southern California are too cold to allow reproduction and that the abundant populations of Ocean Whitefish found in California originate from eggs produced in and around Punta Eugenia, Central Baja. They have a lifespan of up to thirteen years.

In Mexican waters the Ocean Whitefish have a limited distribution being found along the entire west coast of Baja, in the lower three-fourths of the Sea of Cortez, and south along the coast of the mainland to Mazatlán. In the northern part of their range (i.e. Southern California) they are found in association with members of the Rockfish and Scorpionfish Family and the California Sheephead. In the southern part of their range (i.e. Baja California Sur) they are found in close proximity to the Pacific Golden-Eyed Tilefish and the Pacific Red Snapper.

The Ocean Whitefish is easily confused with the Pacific Golden-Eyed Tilefish, Caulolatilus affinis (yellow stripe below and in front of eye).

The Ocean Whitefish are heavily fished and an important commercial and recreational species with the majority of fish caught in winter and early spring. Recreational anglers  in California catch about 15 times more fish than commercial fishermen with total levels of about 200,000 pounds per year and the vast majority of fish being immature non-breeding fish. One interesting note is that they are generally caught with rigs suspended about 15 feet off the ocean bottom whereby most “bottom fish” are caught directly on the bottom. They are caught primarily by hook and line with a limited number caught by commercial fishermen with longlines, traps, and gill nets. From a conservation perspective, they are considered of Least Concern due to their widespread distribution in the Eastern Pacific and the fact that they are very common with stable populations. They are without conservation measures with the exception that there is a daily bag limit of ten fish in California and they do reside in some to the marine protected areas of the Eastern Pacific. They are considered an excellent food fish and sold commercially in all local fish markets live (comprising up to 40% of the commercial catch), fresh, and frozen. They were an important food source for Native Americans. Note: a strange anomaly for me is that the scientific literature reports that Ocean Whitefish achieve a maximum length of 1.02 meters (3 feet 4 inches) and can be found at depths as shallow as 10 feet. I have caught perhaps 1,000 Ocean Whitefish in the greater Los Cabos area over the last 20 years and have never caught one over 40 cm in length. I have also never caught one at a depth less than 150 feet. The body colors of the two fish presented below are significantly different and the black margin on the gill cover of the second fish is noteworthy. Perhaps there are two subspecies of this fish – the common well-studied and well-documented one that lives in Southern California waters and another that lives in waters adjacent to Baja California Sur. A second option is that the first fish below is an Ocean Whitefish and the second is the highly controversial Enigmatic Tilefish, Caulolatilus hubbsi, which may or may not be a real species.

Ocean Whitefish, Caulolatilus princeps. Fish caught in coastal waters off Point Palmilla, Baja California Sur, January 2014. Length: 38 cm (15 inches).

Ocean Whitefish, Caulolatilus princeps. Fish caught from coastal waters off Long Beach, California, October 2015. Length: 40 cm (16 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto, Baja California Sur.