The surfperch, or sand dabs, are small fish native to both saltwater and freshwater habitats along the Pacific coast of North America. In California, they’re commonly found along the coast of Southern California, but they can also be found around San Francisco Bay and in the Sacramento Delta region as well.
Their name comes from their long dorsal fins, which resemble those of a surfboard rider standing on his board ready to catch a wave; hence the nickname surfperch! The scientific name of this species is from the family Embiotocidae and genus Amphistichus.
They are one of the most diverse families of fish and can be found in shallow waters around the world, although they are more commonly found in warmer waters such as those off the coast of California and Australia. They are not picky eaters either; they will consume anything they can fit into their mouths, including small fish, invertebrates, plants, and others, and even dead organisms they find on the seafloor or in the sediment.
Origin and descriptions
They belong to the family Embiotocidae, which includes three genera and fourteen species. They are closely related to sanddab (Citharichthys spp.) and are found in all temperate oceans at depths between 4m and 900 m. The most commonly caught species, plainfin Midshipman (Porichthys notatus), is typically an inch long with a creamy white belly, dark brown spots on its back, and wavy fins.
It lives in sandy areas near kelp beds off of North America’s Pacific coast. Other members of the surfperch family include Orange Roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) and cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii). Surperching are a type of fish that people enjoy eating because they have tasty meat and make good substitutes for lobster or shrimp.
The family includes around 30 types of fish, with their name derived from their technique of surfing along ocean surfaces in search of prey. However, not all surfperches are created equal. The smooth perch (which also goes by rough or spiny perch) can grow to almost three feet in length and weigh as much as 10 pounds! In fact, these apex predators will eat just about anything they come across: crabs, clams, shrimp…even other small fish.
They can be found in a wide variety of different habitats, including brackish and freshwater. They prefer temperate waters to tropical ones. You’ll find them along rocky coasts or sandy beaches, or in shallow tide pools and lagoons. The smaller types of surfperches prefer deeper coastal waters. The larger species prefer shallower water but will stay near some type of coast.
They range in size from 1-5 inches. The largest surfperch species in terms of weight and length are more than 5 inches and may weigh up to half a pound.
Tank set up
You’ll need a 30 to 50 gallon tank with plenty of rocks and driftwood for shelter. Include an under-gravel filter, protein skimmer, and powerhead or two to provide aeration and circulation. A medium-sized hang-on-the-back filter works well in smaller tanks, but if you have room for larger equipment, go for it.
The larger filters keep water clear of waste better than smaller filters do. Provide at least one hiding place for each fish. You’ll also want a tight-fitting lid on your aquarium; surfperches like to jump out of their aquariums. Lid decorations such as corals are not recommended because they can injure your fish.
Choose tank mates wisely. If you choose to keep more than one surfperch in an aquarium, try to pair smaller fish with larger ones. Smaller surfperches have been known to bully and eat small fish. Larger surfperches also have powerful jaws and could injure small, delicate species of fish in an aquarium setting.
Some good tank mates are Albino surfperches, koi, and other large bottom-dwelling species of fish. Keep in mind that these fish should be of similar size as your surfperch or larger. Larger species of fish may be more challenging to keep in an aquarium setting, so make sure you’re prepared for some potential issues with aggression if you choose to go with one of these options.
The surfperch has proved to be an easy fish to breed in captivity, making it popular with hobbyists. Breeding takes place at temperatures of around 20 degrees C or higher, with water that is soft and slightly acidic. They spawn between mid-spring and early summer when the water temperature reaches about 17°C (63°F). Eggs are normally laid on submerged rocks or aquarium glass.
Fry emerge from eggs after 10–14 days, depending on temperature. Their growth rate depends on many factors but the temperature is one important factor for their growth rate which can reach 25 cm (10 inches) within 3 months in ideal conditions. They have been reported to live up to 6 years old.
Are they aggressive or peaceful?
They are generally peaceful, but as with any fish, if you keep them in an aquarium full of other fish that may be aggressive, they can become stressed and behave aggressively.
Most owners describe their surfperches as generally peaceful and say they live in harmony with other species, though (just like any species) some individuals do have varying personalities. It’s always best to get multiple surfperches or at least one friend for your new friend to have companionship.
They are generally hardy fish and do not require much-specialized care. They can be housed in an aquarium, with water temperatures of 64 to 76 degrees F (18 to 24 degrees C) and pH values from 7.0 to 8.3. In addition, they need clean water that is high in oxygen content. It’s important for them to have plenty of hiding places such as rocks or plants in their tank since they are bottom dwellers by nature.
What they eat
Surfperches are carnivorous fish, eating a wide variety of small invertebrates and fish. They prefer sand or soft-bottomed areas where they can detect their prey by touch. The most common prey include worms, clams, crabs, mollusks, shrimp, and snails.
pH should be between 6.4 and 8.0. The lower end of that range for your local area will vary depending on what species of surfperch you are keeping in your aquarium. Keep your ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels low by performing frequent partial water changes (at least 25% every week or two).
Pay attention to details like these with respect to temperature as well—somewhere between 72–80 degrees Fahrenheit (22–27 degrees Celsius) will be best for most Pacific Northwest/Northwestern species of surfperch found around here—though some can tolerate higher temperatures just fine.
The surfperch has an average lifespan of five years, however, some have been known to live up to eight years. They do not reach maturity until they are at least one year old. The surfperch reproduces around late May and September depending on where they are in their habitat. If a male catches a female, then he will bite her lower lip to prevent her from getting away. This process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours for them to be together for breeding purposes.
Parasites and diseases
Parasites include protozoans such as Oodinium, an illness that causes ulcers, and Anchor worms, which can obstruct nostrils or other openings. Diseases include bacterial infections, which cause open sores on fish or lead to pale patches over time; viral infections such as Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus; and fungal infections.
There are lots of predator fish that would love to feast on them. These include northern pike, walleye, black crappie, and other predatory species that prey on smaller fish. Additionally, big-mouth bass will often target surfperch as well. Lastly, minnows also feed on surfperch if given a chance.
Do they make good pets?
Although surfperches aren’t commonly kept as aquarium fish, some aquarists have reported success in keeping them. While they are often too aggressive to keep with other species of fish, there have been reports of successfully keeping them together with other non-aggressive species such as shrimp and snails. Most fish that can be kept together with surfperches are also small enough to avoid being eaten by these predatory fish.