California Gold

By Mia Davidson and  Jan Sattler
By Mia Davidson and Jan Sattler

The brightest colored fish in our local waters is the garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus).  It was named after Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882), an Italian revolutionary hero because of the red shirts that he and his followers wore. The Garibaldi is uniformly brilliant orange in color with green eyes. Males and females are similar in appearance having a sturdy, oval shaped body with a bulging forehead and a heart shaped tail.  An adult Garibaldi averages about 14 inches in length and is the largest member of the damselfish family.

Living 12 to 18 years in the wild, the range of the Garibaldi extends from Monterey to Baja California, but are primarily found off the coast of Southern California and the Channel Islands.  Located along the coastal reefs near rock crevasses and kelp beds in depths up to 95 feet, they are most commonly found close to shore in water less than 15 feet deep.  They are solitary, territorial, curious and unafraid of divers and other animals. When disturbed, the Garibaldi emits a thumping sound that divers can often hear. Daytime foragers, they are omnivorous (eat both plants and animals) feeding on bottom dwelling marine invertebrates (animals without backbones) such as tubeworms, nudibranchs and sea stars as well as sponges, algae and plankton that are located near their home. They also eat small shellfish such as crabs and shrimps and have been known to eat their own eggs. Predators include sharks, sea lions, seals and Moray eels.  On Catalina Island, bald eagles have also been seen feeding on Garibaldis.


Becoming sexually mature at five to six years of age, in early spring the male Garibaldi clears a sheltered area that is approximately two feet wide within its home territory. He cleans away debris and removes unwelcome guests like sea stars and prepares a nest covered with groomed red algae. Spawning occurs from March to July and using the size and attractiveness of his nest, he makes clicking noises and courtship swims in order to entice a female to deposit thousands of yellow eggs. Multiple females can deposit eggs at one site. Once deposited, the male fertilizes the clutch and without any help from the female, guards and tends his offspring until, depending on water temperature, they hatch two to three weeks later into one-eighth inch transparent fish.  As they grow into juveniles, they develop their orange coloring with the inclusion of brilliant blue spots along their body. As long as juveniles have the blue spots, adult Garibaldi will tolerate their presence. The blue spots remain until the juveniles reach sexual maturity.

The history of the Garibaldi becoming the state marine fish of California is convoluted.  In 1971, the California Department of Fish and Game recommended that the Garibaldi be designated the state fish and protected from all take. Although the recommendation became generally accepted, it never actually became law. In the ensuing 22 years, this oversight was exploited by fisherman and fish collectors, and over time stocks of the fish were seriously depleted. In 1993, legislation passed that banned any take from Feb. 1 to Oct. 31, but in some areas, the population of Garibaldi continued to decline.  Ultimately in 1995, an Assembly Bill was signed into law, which designated the Garibaldi as the official state marine fish, completely protecting them by law.  Since enacted, Garibaldi populations have recovered and are commonly found throughout their range. In Laguna, they can be seen when snorkeling near the rocks and kelp or from kayaks and paddleboards when the water is clear and calm.

Longtime residents Mia Davidson and artist Jan Sattler enjoy sharing information about the precious resources they encounter swimming in the ocean.


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