Damselfishes: Family Pomacentridae
Species: Hypsypops rubicundus (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word hypsypops (high area below the eye) and the Latin word rubicunda (red).
Alternate Names: Golden perch, ocean sunfish and ocean goldfish. In Mexico called jaqueta garibaldi. As for the name garibaldi, it apparently was a name bestowed upon the fish by California’s Italian commercial fishermen in the 1800s. Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the main leaders in the unification movement to create an Italian nation and his followers were known as the “Redshirts” for the bright red shirts they wore. He was considered a hero to Italians throughout the world and apparently the fish, at least to some, were reminiscent of those red shirts.
Identification: Garibaldi are easily distinguished by the brilliant golden-orange coloring on the whole body and are considered by many the prettiest fish in our coastal waters. They are perch-shaped but very deep-bodied with large fins. The young (up to about 6 inches in length) are reddish orange with bright blue spots.
Size: To 14 inches (some books say 15 inches) but most pier-caught fish are under a foot in length.
Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California to Monterey Bay. Uncommon north of Santa Barbara and rare north of Point Conception.
Habitat: Generally found in shallow-water, rocky-shore areas although they have been encountered down to a depth of almost 100 feet. Fitch and Lavenberg, Tidepool and Nearshore Fishes of California, report that “A wide variety of food items has been found in garibaldi stomachs, including sponges, sea anemones, bryozoans, algae, worms, crustaceans, clams and mussels, snail eggs, and their own eggs.” No wonder it is sometimes hard to keep them off a hook even though they’re illegal to keep.
Piers: Often hooked at southern California piers located near kelp beds or rocky reefs. Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Harbor Pier, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, and the three main piers on Catalina island—the Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole at Avalon (where it’s hard not to hook them), and the Isthmus Pier at Two Harbors.
Shoreline: Occasionally hooked by rocky shore anglers in southern California.
Boats: An inshore species rarely taken from boats although some are hooked, and hopefully returned, by kayakers fishing in shallow water, rocky areas.
Bait and Tackle: None—illegal to take
Food Value: None since you can’t keep them.
Comments: Although pretty to look at, they are pugnacious, strong, and not the friendliest fish. They are extremely territorial and will defend fairly large areas. This is especially true during the spring-summer spawning season when males will build a nest and defend it against intruders, both fellow male garibaldi and other species (including humans). Apparently the cute little missy garibaldi are an exception and allowed to invade those spaces and deposit their eggs.
It is illegal to keep these fish, but why? As related to me by a Fish and Game official, the campaign to make them illegal originated in Avalon. It seems that the glass bottom boats, a popular attraction at Avalon on Catalina Island, were worried that anglers (actually divers) were taking far too many of the beautifully colored fish and that it was bad for their business (since garibaldi are one of the most viewable fish from the boats). They got a law passed making it illegal to keep them in Avalon waters and soon after the question came up as to why not make it illegal throughout the state. Eventually the statewide law making them illegal was indeed passed by the legislature. Today, most anglers return the fish to the water if they’re mistakenly hooked. However, a number are also speared illegally. It seems colorful fish are required at the wedding dinner tables of some Pacific Islanders and garibaldi are a favorite. Once again long-time cultural tradition clashes with today’s rules.
Garibaldi are one of California’s two official “state fish.” Garibaldi are the “saltwater” or marine fish while golden trout are the “freshwater” fish. Garibaldi are illegal to keep in California.