Sebastes spp.

Fishing Facts

  • Daily limit: 10
  • Open to divers and shore-based anglers year-round
  • Open to boat-based anglers form March 1-Dec 31
  • Must be taken in 300ft or less water depth

The term Rockfish is used to describe a complex of fish off our coast; there are more than 100 species of rockfish in our ocean that come in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes. Rockfish are some of the longest-living fishes, and some live to be 200 years old!  From black and dark green to bright orange and red, these fish can be solid in color or have stripes or spots. Some have broad mouths that point down at the corners, or very large eyes, and most have large spines on their fins. These spines have a slight toxicity, and can cause pain or infection to other fish as well as humans.  With a diet of mostly plankton, small crustaceans, and other fish, they can grow to between 4 and 41 inches, depending on species.  Most Rockfish are found in the continental shelf area of the ocean, usually within kelp beds or rocky outcroppings.

Endangered or Protected?ATTENTION

Rockfish have a very complex management structure, with responsibilities are shared by state and federal regulators (see DFW’s Nearshore Fisheries Management Plan).  Most nearshore rockfish species are ok to catch, with the exception of four species of rockfish that may not be possessed at any time: Canary Rockfish, Cowcod, Bronzespotted Rockfish, and Yelloweye Rockfish.

Being able to identify the protected species in the field is very important, but not always easy so you must educate yourself.  For example, Canary Rockfish and Yelloweye Rockfish (both protected) can be difficult to differentiate from the Vermilion Rockfish (a legal rockfish). In cases like this, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife  provides tips and images to help differentiate these species, and thereby protect the Canary and Yelloweye.  For more detailed descritopns of the common Rockfish species, see DFW’s Rockfish Species Identification.


While rockfish live in a variety of ocean habitats, certain species are more commonly found in specific zones, and have thus been sorted into groups based on this location. Rockfish can be found off the coast in shallow nearshore waters in the rocky intertidal, deep waters on the continental shelf, and even deeper waters of the shelf as well as down the continental slope. However, those living in the deeper waters and near the slope are rarely encountered by fishermen.

The highlighted pink area is the swim bladder in a rockfish.
The highlighted pink area is the swim bladder in a rockfish.

Swim Bladder

Rockfish have an organ filled with gas that allows them to control their buoyancy. This helps them hover in the water column with little movement, and can help them catch unsuspecting prey.

When a rockfish is caught and brought to the surface from a great depth or very quickly, the swim bladder can over-expand and even push the stomach out of the mouth of the fish. This is called barotrauma.  If the fish is simply released back into the water, it cannot descend into the water column making it vulnerable to predation and sun damage. Follow these guidelines to help get the fish back to a safe depth:

  • Do NOT puncture the internal organs protruding from the fish’s mouth; 
  • Use a weighted barbless hook, cage with a trap door, or a milk crate to lower fish to the bottom;
  • Handle the fish on deck as little as possible, and get it back into the water quickly ;
  • If using a weighted barbless hook, consider having a dedicated fishing pole to speed things along;
  • If you are catching protected species of fish, move to a different area.


barotraumaWatch this entertaining video by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center to get a good overview on barotrauma , and some tips on how to use the various descending devices!