Species: Xenistius californiensis (Steindachner, 1876); from xenitius (strange sail, in allusion to the dorsal fin) and californiensis in reference to California as the geographic area where the fish was first captured (in San Diego Bay).
Alternate Names: Bass, big eye, big eye bass, striped bass and lima perch. In Mexico called salema, pajarillo or ojotón.
Identification: This pretty little fish resembles a striped bass in shape and is even striped, but both color and range is different. Salema have a bass-like body, very large eyes, and 6-8 orange-brown horizontal stripes on the side. Their coloring is iridescent blue-green above, and silvery below; tail fins orange-brown. They will often also make a grunting noise when removed from the water. They are sometimes mistaken for small striped bass.
Size: Up to 11.8 inches but most caught from piers are only 6-8 inches long.
Range: Found from northern Peru, Gulf of California, and the Pacific coast where they are found from Baja California to Monterey Bay. Considered most common from Santa Monica south into the tropics. My records show them most commonly caught from piers between Oceanside and Santa Monica. They are uncommon north of Point Dume and rare north of Santa Barbara.
Habitat: Shallow-water rocky areas and in eelgrass, surfgrass, and kelp beds (although recorded over sand and to a depth of 131 feet). Salema are usually found in schooling groups during the day but then, about a half hour before sunset, head out on their own to feed. They are considered nocturnal predators that feed on a wide variety of organisms, everything from tiny shrimp and worms to such things as brittle stars, copepod, and small fish. When young they often school with juvenile sargo and black croaker.
Piers: Best bets: Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Belmont Veterans Pier (Long Beach), Hermosa Beach Pier, and Manhattan Beach Pier. I have also taken quite a few from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon but only during nighttime hours. In addition, I have seen a number taken from the Port Hueneme Pier and Ventura Pier—both supposedly in areas where salema are considered uncommon.
Shoreline: Rarely taken by shore anglers.
Boats: Rarely taken from boats.
Bait and Tackle: These fish will take most small baits on a size 6 or 8 hook, including small pinhead anchovies. Most however are caught on mussels, bloodworms, or a small strip of anchovy or mackerel. Fish around the pilings and fish from just off the bottom to mid-depth.
Food Value: Salema are a mild-flavored fish with firm texture and due to size best suited for pan-frying.
Comments: Although this is a small fish, its relative scarcity and attractive appearance make it a worthwhile catch (and they give a good, rugged little battle when caught on ultra-light tackle). I've always thought they would make a beautiful saltwater aquarium fish.
Back in the day when tuna boats out of San Diego used rod and reel for tuna, salema were considered a valuable baitfish. Today few anglers use them as bait. However, I had an interesting talk one day was with “Jose” and his crew of anglers at the Ocean Beach Pier (known as the OB Extreme Shark Fishing Crew). The crew is noted for the high number of large sharks they catch at the pier (including sevengill sharks over 200 pounds in weight). In talking to him about bait for the sharks he mentioned that one of his favorite baits is a whole dead salema. I would never have guessed that salema was a good bait for sharks.
I’m not sure where the name derives but there is a small fishing village on the coast of Portugal named Salema.
In 2006 Practical Fishkeeping Magazine reported: “Men hallucinate after eating fish. Two men have suffered terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations after eating a popular local seafish in Mediterranean restaurants ... the men started seeing and hearing things after contracting a rare form of hallucinogenic poisoning from the Salema fish they were dining on ... The effects of eating ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes, such as certain mullet, goatfish, tangs, damsels and rabbitfish, are believed to be similar to LSD, and may include vivid and terrifying auditory and visual hallucinations. This has given rise to the collective common name for ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes of ‘dream fish’. The poisoning can start to cause vivid hallucinations within minutes of eating a poisonous fish and may last for days, often with no other effects. There is no antidote ... Indoles, with similar chemical effects to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) are believed to be responsible and may be consumed when the fish eat algae or phytoplankton containing the chemicals. All of the species affected by ichthyoallyeinotoxism are algal grazers. Others have claimed that different species of ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes, such as Kyphosus fuseus, contain much more potent hallucinogens, such as dimethyltryptamine or DMT, which is considered to be one of the world's most mind-bending hallucinogenic chemicals ... Sarpa salpa, the fish consumed by the men was a member of the Sparidae family and is commonly known as the Salema porgy ... According to the paper, Sarpa salpa was consumed as a recreational drug in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire.” In Arabic, salema porgy are known as “the fish that makes dreams.” So there you have it, the salema in California were not the culprit in this strange episode of hallucinogenic poisoning even though certain areas in California, especially the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco at one time, would seem a natural place for such an occurrence.