Common around Southern California
Ocean Whitefish Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Caulolatilus princeps
Ocean Whitefish Conservation Status
Ocean Whitefish Locations
Ocean Whitefish Facts
A staple in Southern California, the ocean whitefish is a member of the tilefish family Malacanthidae. While commonly caught as bycatch, ocean whitefish aren’t actively targeted by most commercial fisheries in the United States. They are highly active and mostly solitary outside of the spawning and mating season. During the day, they come to the surface to hunt or forage in sandy or rocky substrates before returning to reefs and kelp beds at night to find shelter.
5 Ocean Whitefish Facts
- At night, ocean whitefish take shelter in reefs and kelp beds to protect themselves from predators.
- The largest ever caught weighed in at approximately 13 pounds.
- This fish is a popular and important food fish in Baja, California, where it goes by the name blanquillo or pez blanco.
- Despite their small size, they are notoriously aggressive eaters that forage for food by digging in soft substrates.
- Crewmembers of the H.M.S. Beagle collected the first ocean whitefish specimens during their voyage to the Galapagos in 1835.
Classification and Scientific name
The ocean whitefish belongs to the tilefish family Malacanthidae. English naturalist Leonard Jenyns first described this fish back in 1840. Several years earlier, crewmembers of the H.M.S. Beagle – including Charles Darwin – collected type specimens in the waters around the Galapagos. Ocean whitefish belong to the genus Caulolatilus, the most basal or least specialized of the tilefishes. The genus name derives from the Latin words caul and latilus, which stems from latus, meaning “broad.” Meanwhile, its scientific name princeps translates as “first” or “most important.” This name was likely chosen because the type specimen measured larger than other tilefish at the time it was described. Although some researchers consider Hubb’s tilefish (Caulolatilus hubbsi) as a separate species, others contend that it is simply a junior synonym of the ocean whitefish. In Spanish-speaking countries, this fish goes by the name blanquillo or pez blanco.
Ocean Whitefish Appearance
These fish possess a deep, rounded head with a steep, sloping profile that ends in a tiny mouth directly in front of the eye. The elongated body appears quite sturdy and quadrangular and features a fleshy ride directly in front of the dorsal fin. On average, the dorsal fin contains seven to 10 spines and 24 to 27 soft rays. Meanwhile, the anal fin has one to three spines and 22 to 26 soft rays. The body scales look predominantly pale brown except for the belly, which appears white. The pectoral fins have yellowish-blue streaks, while the dorsal fin looks yellow. Most ocean whitefish measure between 12 and 15 inches long and weigh around eight pounds. That said, the largest specimens can grow up to 40 inches long and weigh up to 13 pounds.
Distribution, Population, and Habitat
You can find them in warm waters throughout the eastern Pacific. Their native range extends from British Columbia south to Peru and includes most of the eastern Pacific archipelagos. While relatively abundant throughout their range, ocean whitefish are most often found around the shores and islands of Southern California. In this region, they are commonly located between Santa Barbara County and Baja California, Mexico. Evidence suggests that these fish migrate between feeding and spawning grounds, but details of this migration remain unclear. They inhabit depths between 10 and 500 feet and move between depths depending on the time of day. You can often find them closer to the surface during the day or foraging for food in rocky or sandy substrates. At night, they take shelter in rocky reefs or kelp beds to avoid predators.
Predators and Prey
Predators include school sharks, California sea lions, and giant sea bass. To avoid these predators, ocean whitefish typically hide in rocky reefs and kelp beds at night.
These fish are diurnal carnivores that prey on crustaceans and small fish. Their diet consists of krill, crabs, shrimp, anchovies, squid, and lanternfish. During the day, ocean whitefish are extremely active near the surface. They are solitary hunters that actively hunt or forage for food. You can often find them foraging for food in soft substrate.
Reproduction and Lifespan
The spawning season typically starts in late autumn and runs into early spring. During this season, they may spawn multiple times. They migrate from colder waters to warmer waters to spawn, as warm water increases the chances of reproduction. Ocean whitefishes are solitary and do not form monogamous or polygamous mating arrangements. The eggs and larvae are pelagic, which means they occur in open water. Compared to other bony ray-finned fish, ocean whitefish develop quite rapidly while young. They normally reach sexual maturity between three and five years old, with females usually maturing earlier than males. While they can live to a maximum of 13 years old, most will not live this long.
Ocean Whitefish in food and cooking
You can cook ocean whitefish whole, as filets, or in soup stocks. The meat has a thick, meaty texture and typically a relatively mild flavor. That said, some fish that spend a lot of time in kelp beds can taste somewhat bitter. This fish holds up well to grilling, baking, frying, steaming, and poaching. It tends to hold its shape well, and when it does flake, it normally flakes in larger pieces than more delicate white fish. Thanks to its low levels of mercury and other toxins, most people can enjoy ocean whitefish often without having to worry about any major health concerns. It serves as a great option for people looking to add some lean protein to their diet. Many people choose to pair it with simple flavors like lemon and herbs. However, you can also use more complex marinades and sauces to highlight its flavor.
Ocean Whitefish Population
Presently, not enough data exists to determine the population of ocean whitefish in the eastern Pacific. That said, a plethora of anecdotal evidence indicates that most stocks are relatively stable. Despite their abundance, most commercial fisheries don’t actively harvest them. Most ocean whitefish find their way into fish markets as a result of bycatch from hook and line fishing. While not actively harvested by most commercial fisheries, it is a popular food fish in some regions. In Baja California, sport and artisanal fishers target ocean whitefish for personal enjoyment and as a food fish, respectively. Still, they have yet to break into most US commercial fish markets outside Southern California. Thanks to its abundance and widespread distribution throughout the eastern Pacific, the IUCN lists them as a species of Least Concern.
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Ocean Whitefish FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are ocean whitefish carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores?
Ocean whitefish are carnivores that both actively hunt and forage for food. Their diet consists of crabs, krill, shrimp, squid, anchovies, and other small fish.
Where are ocean whitefish found?
You can find ocean whitefish throughout the eastern Pacific Ocean. They range from British Columbia in the north to the coasts of Peru in the south.
Is ocean whitefish good eating?
Ocean whitefish is a great tasting fish with a mild flavor and meaty texture that holds together wells but flakes apart easily into large pieces.
Is ocean whitefish high in mercury?
While some tilefish can contain high levels of mercury, most ocean whitefish have low mercury levels and are considered safe to eat regularly for most people.
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- Case a grant, Available here: https://caseagrant.ucsd.edu/seafood-profiles/ocean-whitefish
- Marine Species, Available here: https://marinespecies.wildlife.ca.gov/ocean-whitefish/true/