Why It’s a Bad Idea to Keep Surfperch: Angler’s Opinion

pregnant surfperch
pregnant surfperch with fry (babies) in womb

An Opinion on the Topic of Catching to Keep

In this article, we’ll talk about the main reasons why I don’t keep surfperch for eating purposes (anymore). Reason #1: Lack of meat. Reason #2: Pregnant surfperch. I’ll open this article by clarifying a few points:

  • I am not against keeping fish for eating purposes.
  • I love eating fish… especially fresh fish caught by myself.
  • Occasionally, I do keep fish, but I normally practice catch and release.
  • If it’s legal to keep your catch, you can keep your catch.
  • If surfperch is simply your favorite eating fish out there… great.
  • I’m just bringing a subject to light via my own experiences and opinions.

Throughout my years of surf fishing, I’ve come across many types of anglers. Some anglers are out there for the pure joy of the sport, catching and releasing and loving the moment. Some are out there for the joy of the sport and a meal is an occasional perk. Others keep every fish they can legally keep. And then there are some who keep every fish they catch, regardless of the law.

I’m not “after” anyone as I write this article. But, I am going to offer my perspective on the idea of catching to keep when it comes to surfperch fishing.

A Little Bit About Myself

I’ve been fishing the surf since 2014 and I love surf fishing. I also love eating fish. Given my profession, I have the luxury of fishing quite often and I am ever-thankful for the gift of nature – fish, the ocean, and the beach being high-up in the category.

When Do I Keep A Fish to Eat?

I’m a big believer in taking only what you need when it comes to the sport of fishing. For me, that means taking what I know I or my family will eat in the next few days. When I catch a fish to keep, I’ve usually planned for it ahead of time, at least to some degree. Basically, if I know I have the time in the coming days to cook a meal that I can sit down and enjoy with family and/or friends, I might consider the option to keep my catch.

The next step would be catching something that meets my standards of a “keeper fish”. That’s where the surfperch falls short about 99% of the time. If I can’t catch something worth keeping, so be it. That’s fishing.

What is a Keeper Fish?

I can’t stress it enough that this entire article is strictly my opinion and that my opinions likely differ from the vast majority of anglers at least in some ways. Diversity of opinion is a fantastic thing and I fully support the notion.

A keeper fish, in short, is one that will feed everyone I’ll be feeding for the day in which I plan to eat the fish (with a few exceptions). Obviously, if I plan to host a larger gathering, more than one fish may be required. My goal is to keep as few fish as possible to feed my dinner party while keeping my catch as fresh as possible. Below are the rough standards I use to classify a “keeper fish”.

Standards Per Species
  • Corbina: 18-inches, thick.
  • Spotfin croaker: 18-inches, thick.
  • Barred Surfperch: 15-inches, no other options.
  • Yellowfin croaker: 16-inches, no other options.
  • Halibut: 22-inches, relatively thick.
  • Shovelnose guitarfish: Between 36 and 48-inches, relatively thick.

I know there are other species out there, but I don’t regularly consider keeping any other species.

Why I Don’t Keep Surfperch for Eating

Arguably the most popular species commonly caught in the surf of the west coast, surfperch might be the most commonly kept fish for eating. I don’t keep surfperch for eating purposes for two main reasons. 1.) They typically don’t provide much meat. 2.) When they are big enough to provide some meat, they’re usually pregnant.

Surfperch Provide Little Meat

When compared to almost any other commonly caught surf species, surfperch provide very little meat. In my opinion, I’d rather keep one 20-inch spotfin croaker than six or seven surfperch. Better yet, how’s a 4-foot guitarfish rather than 15 or 20 surfperch? That’s the way I look at keeping fish. I think as an angler, it’s my responsibility to not only abide by the law, but to be conscious of the effects my behaviors and decisions might have on an ecosystem.

I’m not pushing for a halt or a complete stop to keeping surfperch. I’m just illustrating the reasoning behind why I don’t keep surfperch. If you hop on social media, it won’t take long before you find one post and then another, and another of anglers keeping limits on surfperch. From my point of view, I would rather keep one or two fish that provide the same amount of meat if not more. A smaller species like the surfperch is more prone to overfishing for that very reason.

Again, I don’t want everyone to stop keeping surfperch altogether and start only keeping one species of fish. Keeping some surfperch here and there isn’t an issue. It’s constantly taking home limits that’s the issue. I still think back to a post made by an administrator on a Facebook Group by the name of “West Coast Surf Fishing” that I’ve referenced before:

“There are over 14,000 members on this page. If each of us kept a limit once a week, there would be 140,000 fewer fish in the ocean, per week. You can do the math and calculate how many fish would be gone from the ocean each year with just our group keeping a limit a week…” (West Coast Surf Fishing).

Pregnant Surfperch

surfperch giving birth
pregnant surfperch giving birth out of water

Reason number two: if surfperch seem big enough to provide meat, they’re likely pregnant. Surfperch have a gestational period of about 6-months and this typically begins in November. That said, from November through the beginning of May, most female barred surfperch are pregnant. Not only are they pregnant, surfperch are viviparous. This means they give birth to live young. On top of that, it’s a mothers instinct to expel her fry (babies) when she is distressed or deems her life to be in danger.

Why does this matter? Well, aside from the gruesome image above and at the top of this page, when outside of the pregnant fish’s body, these live young count toward your daily bag limit.

What’s the concern? If you keep a slab surfperch and stash it away in your cooler, it may give birth to some 50+ babies. Meanwhile, if a warden were to stroll by and check out your catch, that’s game over. Imagine a fine for being some 30-fish over your daily bag limit. Yikes!

All legalities aside though, nobody wants to harm the surfperch population. If you think your fish is pregnant, just let it go. After all, when you release a fish, your odds of catching more fish are always better than if you were to keep it. I’ll argue that point with anyone.

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