California Yellowtail

With all the discussion these days about small yellowtail being caught and kept I though I would do my best to research the subject and weigh in my feelings.  I really thought I would find facts proving that these “rat” yellows spawn at a young age and grow really fast, to support my belief that keeping these smaller fish was justifiable.  Turns out there is little known about California Yellowtail compared to other fish we love to target in our area, and what is available is not exactly what I expected.

These fish grow fast at a young age and are 3-4lbs at year one, but their growth slows considerably as they age and at 5 years old the average yellowtail is approximately 16lbs.  Most spawn in their 2nd year while all spawn in their third year.  This means that all of these small yellowtail caught on kelps have not yet spawned, something that surprises me and changes my opinion more than a little.  Yellowtail broadcast spawn meaning that they gather in groups and males release sperm in the water with the eggs from the females.  Spawning occurs from May through September, right when we are targeting them.  Armed with this information I am now puzzled with the apparent health of our yellowtail biomass.  On all fronts the scientific community rates the California Yellowtail population as “healthy”.

Another thing that got my attention is the amount of eggs deposited by smaller yellows in comparison to the larger ones.  3 to 5 year old yellowtail spawn just once per year, releasing about 458,000 eggs while their larger cousins spawn multiple times per year and its more like 4 million eggs!  Obviously the large yellows are carrying the weight of the responsibility for the species.  Good when you think of how smart the big boys are, and its healthy that the next generation gets the genes of wise yellowtail.

California yellowtail populations live primarily in Mexican waters most of their lives, and a low percentage migrates above the border during warm water seasons.  The record large yellowtail caught in California was 80lbs (caught in 2001) and the record in Mexico was a whopping 92.1lbs (caught in 1960).  While a ten year old fish will typically be around 35lbs, no California yellowtail has ever been aged at over 12 years.  So how old were the record fish, and how old do they get?  I found no answers.

Interestingly, these fish grow decidedly faster in warmer water, so a resident Catalina yellowtail at 25lbs may be 10 years old!  On years such as this one where a large volume of small yellowtail migrate into US waters there is some that stay at our local islands and coastline for the rest of their lives.  Tagging studies have shown that these fish migrate very little once they get here, staying local and living the rest of their lives within miles of one area.  At least 3 different species of the yellowtail family exist in the Pacific, and scientists agree that more may be discovered if more research is done.  No data was available on the Southern California resident population and its spawning habits.

In past years (1954) yellowtail had a high commercial market value for canning but that is ancient history.  Today recreational catches far exceed commercial catches, another fact that caught me by surprise.  Drift nets (gill nets) account for the bulk of the total commercial amount of yellowtail caught each year, and those nets are set to target white seabass and barracuda (thats what it says!).  Commercial rod and reel catches are surprisingly high actually, but don’t even touch the amount captured by nets.  No real shocker there.

I never have had a problem admitting I was wrong, and this is just another case of that.  What I wanted to find was facts leading to me preaching from my soap box about how catching and keeping small yellowtail is legal and the fishery sustainable.  While the latter seems to be true with the information I found, and obviously the legal aspect is accurate, I have no soap box to stand on anymore.  These small fish should be released whenever possible, and I will make an effort to do so.

Now if I was running a boat that had traveled long distance on substantial amounts of fuel I might change my way of thinking when that first “rat” comes to color.  But the mass destruction of “limits for all” is something I have changed my mind on.  I still believe in peoples right to do their own thinking and certain freedoms for all (within the limits of the law).  I will change my ways based on the data I found this evening, and let you decide for yourself.  These fish gather offshore in groups to spawn this time of year, and we are taking advantage of that and disrupting the cycle of life.  They are fun to catch, and while fishing for these small California yellowtail we have the opportunity to catch something worth really getting excited about.  They taste good too.

What will you do the next time you find a kelp loaded with “rat” yellows?