Giant Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas
The Giant Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas, whose common Spanish name is Pescara is a member of the Seabass (Wreckfish) or Polyprionidae Family, known collectively as “Náufragos” in Mexico. This species is more commonly referred to as the Black Sea Bass in California.
The Giant Sea Bass has a robust oblong body covered with small rough scales that have a width that is approximately 40% of standard length. Juvenile Giant Sea Bass are brightly colored orange with large black spots. As they mature the orange coloration changes to a bronzy purple hue and the spots fade as the fish gets larger and darker, with large adults being a grayish black with a white underside. They have the ability to make rapid and dramatic color changes with large fish having the ability to display large black spots, and take on a bicolor appearance (light below, dark above), assume white mottling, or simply change from jet black to light gray. The anal, caudal and dorsal fins are dark with clear margins, the pectoral fins are clear and the pelvic fins are black. The head has a large mouth with small teeth and a serrated gill cover with one or two spines. They have anal fins with three spines and eight to ten rays, a straight caudal fin, one dorsal fin with eleven or twelve spines and nine to twleve rays that is divided and pelvic fins that are larger than their pectoral fins. The anal and dorsal fins are mirror images of each other.
The Giant Sea Bass is found at depths between 100 and 150 feet within rocky structure adjacent to kelp beds. They reach a maximum length of 224 cm (7 feet 4 inches) and 563 pounds 8 ounces in weight based on a fish caught off the Southern California coast in 1968. In general they are poorly studied and not much is known about their behavioral patterns as they are a deep-water fish found demersal (on the bottom) in caves and within shipwrecks and in small schools. They prey on sting rays, skates, lobster, crabs, various flatfish, small sharks, mantis shrimp, blacksmith, ocean whitefish, red crab, sargo, sheephead, octopus, squid, kelp bass and barred sand bass. They are not built for sustained speed, and most of their prey and taken off the oceans bottom by the vacuum produced when the huge mouth is rapidly opened. Each female can lay up to 60 million eggs per annum. In Mexican waters of the Pacific they are found along the entire west coast of Baja and in the northern half of the Sea of Cortez.
The Giant Sea Bass can be confused with the Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara (dorsal fin without a notch, rounded caudal fin).
The Giant Sea Bass is currently classified as a Critically Endangered Species. They have a very limited distribution, large size, and they aggregate during spawning season making them very vulnerable to all types of fishing pressure including spearfishing. They were strongly overfished with landing rates in Mexican waters decreasing from 363 tons per year in 1932 to 12 tons per year in 1980. They are a slow maturing fish with regeneration times taking 7 to 10 years and without pressure they have a minimum population doubling time of more than 14 years. California State Legislature banned both commercial and recreational fishing of the Giant Sea Bass in 1981 in response to the great decline in population. They also banned the inshore use of gill nets in California in 1990. It is currently believed that their populations have now been stabilized.
Within the Baja they can be found for sale in the major food markets and considered to be an excellent food fish. In contrast, the Fish and Game Department of the State of California has established a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for anyone in possession of a Giant Sea Bass.