A Guide to the Fishes of Humboldt Bay

Humboldt Bay is one of California's largest natural bays, encompassing over 17,000 acres of water, mud flats and marshes (Figure 1). It is located at latitude 40° 46' N and longitude 124° 14'W. The bay is 22.5 km long and 7.2 km wide, and is composed of three subbays: a northern area, Arcata Bay, an Entrance Bay and a southern section, South Bay. Water levels fluctuate greatly within the bay due to the shallowness of the Arcata and South Bays. The narrow deep entrance to the bay causes great turbulence and breakers frequently form during tidal changes. For this reason Humboldt Bay is dangerous to enter or leave. Experienced skippers only proceed during a flood or slack tide. Arcata Bay and South Bay are both fairly shallow and during low tides more than half their area becomes exposed as mud flats. Several species of shore birds probe the mud flats for infaunal residents. The migratory birds utilizing Humboldt Bay lead in 1971 to the formation of Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing sections of Arcata and South Bay. Many of the Bayâs marshes and lowlands have been diked and drained for agricultural use, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and construction of U.S. highway 101. Although the bay today covers over 17,000 acres it once totaled some 27,000 acres. Through the early to mid 1800's Humboldt Bay was seldom visited or noticed by passing vessels. This is because of itâs narrow opening and the sand dunes which form a barrier between the ocean and the Arcata and South Bays. Gold mining in nearby counties followed by timber and fishery resources helped to establish Humboldt Bay as a port. Two jetties, completed in 1899, welcome vessels into the bay. Numerous modifications and much reconstruction have taken place on the jetties over the years. Storms and the commonly rough seas are the primary cause for this periodic maintenance. A project in 1971 entailed placing large concrete dolosses at the ends of the jetties to prevent further degradation. However, even with these engineered concrete reinforcements, more were needed in 1987 and more will undoubtably be needed in the future. While these rock and concrete structures are a continuous problem for the engineers, they provide a haven for numerous fishes and should not be overlooked by sportfishers. Although impacted by the growing population, the bay and ocean still provided for plentiful fisheries. It was the fisheries facilities that supported the local economy. Fish canneries opened within Old Town Eureka and the King Salmon area. Today many of these once bustling establishments are vacant reminders of what had been a busy port. Presently, Eureka Fisheries, located in Fields Landing, and Pacific Choice are the two major remaining facilities in operation on the bay. Today, the bay provides for a vast recreational fishery but limited commercial fishing. While there are over 100 species recorded from the bay, few are utilized by commercial fishing operations. This is due to much more efficient offshore trawling boats, declining bay populations, and the lack of a market for many of the smaller bay fishes. Although the Pacific herring, leopard shark and some of the surf perches are commercially fished, these are limited to hook and line or special permits. Coast Seafoods Incorporated uses the bay for oyster cultivation, providing fresh and canned oysters to local and foreign markets. Access is somewhat limited for such a large bay . There are only three public boat launches: one near the U.S. Coast Guard station on Samoa Boulevard, another at Fields Landing, and one at the Arcata marsh. Anglers without boats must cast from shore since there are no usable public fishing piers. The mouth of the bay, with itâs jetties, gives shore anglers their best access. These rock and concrete jetties mark the north and south sides of the inlet channel. The jetties not only provide suitable fishing platforms but also excellent structure for many of the most sought after fish. Salmon can even be taken from the ends of the jetties during the late summer months. This guide provides a brief description including distribution of the fishes that have been recorded from Humboldt Bay. It is intended to be an identification guide to those fishes. The fishes are presented in phylogenetic order. Scientific and common names are given for each species along with diagnostic characteristics, life history notes, geographic distribution, and approximate maximum size. A color photograph of each species is provided when available. Please keep in mind that some of these fishes are quite rare in Humboldt Bay and may have been recorded based on the collection of only one individual. It is of course probable that additional species will be recorded from the bay as strays, and vagrants are always possible. It is useful to use the photographs as an aid in identification, as well as a good field guide, such as Miller and Lea's Guide to the Coastal Marine Fishes of California.