Saving White Sea Bass: A fish species replenished

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — The 1980s were pivotal for white sea bass. A report published by the California Ocean Protection Council stated the white sea bass population was depleted to 10 percent of its historic catch. White sea bass were becoming endangered. The outlook was bleak.

A light began to appear at the end of the tunnel in 1986, when more than 2,000 juvenile white sea bass were released into San Diego’s Mission Bay as part of an experimental program to replenish the species’ population. Since then about one dozen organizations from San Diego to Santa Barbara have operated volunteer-based grow out pens to increase the stock of white sea bass.

A stock assessment is still in the works to determine how much progress has been made, but, by all indications, efforts to replenish white sea bass between Mexico and Alaska appear to be successful.

A Group Effort

Replenishing the white sea bass population has been a collaborative effort between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), Hubbs Sea World Research Institute in San Diego, and Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP) in Carlsbad.

Bob Hetzler, an active member of Anglers of Huntington Harbour who served as president, treasurer and operating manager of HOPE (Harbour Ocean Preservation Enhancement) said DFW is responsible for managing local fish stocks.

OREHP is an experimental hatchery program in Carlsbad funded by DFW. The program launched in 1982 and, since finding a base in northern San Diego County in the mid-1990s, provides juvenile white sea bass 13 grow out venues across Southern California.

Tom Ratifican, who served on the OREHP Advisory Committee for about 10 years, said white sea bass are in recovery and state officials are taking active steps to monitor the fishery’s status.

“White sea bass have been in recovery mode. Thanks to California’s Marine Life Management Act, the DFW has implemented a White Seabass Fishery Management Plan that now documents the status of the fishery,” said Ratifican of The Sportfishing Conservancy. “Some 14 California fishing clubs have worked in concert with Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute to release more than a million juvenile fish. Normally these fish are taken to the pens at about 3 inches and released after growing to 7-9 inches.”

Ratifican added, however, a determination is still being made as to what factors contributed to the recovery of the white sea bass population.

“In light of the number of variables it is difficult to assess this program in terms of it being a primary contributor to the recovery. I believe the Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking at that right now,” Ratifican said.

Proposition 132

Replenishing the white sea bass was made easier by the passage of Proposition 132, which established marine protection zones off the California coast. Use of gillnets within the zones, which were within 3 miles of the coast, were prohibited. The proposition, which was approved by the California electorate in 1990, also required the state’s Fish and Game Commission to promote marine research through the creation of ocean water ecological reserves.

“Proposition 132 and the accompanying gillnet ban have made a tremendous, positive impact on the population recovery. Removing nearshore gillnets was huge,” Ratifican said.

A Volunteer Based Program

Balboa Angling Club

Hubbs Sea World Research Institute reached out to Balboa Angling Club in 1992 to determine whether the fishing group could establish a volunteer-based grow out venue for white sea bass, the first of its type built in Orange County. All tagged white sea bass from this venue would supply the hatchery at Hubbs Sea World.

“Since its inception this facility has raised and released more than 75,000 young white sea bass that are usually around 8 to 12 inches in length when released,” said Jock Albright, president of Balboa Angling Club and founder of Newport White Seabass Program. “All of the released seabass carry a very small wire tag inserted into their cheek at the hatchery before delivery to the grow out facility which provides valuable scientific information when that tag is recovered years later.

“Many of these tags have been recovered from all over the Southern California Coast and as far out as 80 miles offshore,” Albright continued.

Albright added the white sea bass program could potentially be replicated to protect other fish species.

“To my knowledge this volunteer based program is unique to anywhere else in the world but could definitely be adapted to enhancing other species of fish given the proper support and funding,” Albright said. “This program continues to be successful and there are ongoing discussions to expand it to other species of fish locally, such as California halibut.”

Harbour Rod and Reel Club
A white sea bass restoration program was launched at Huntington Harbour more than 20 years ago, when the Harbour Rod & Reel Club (HRRC) debuted its grow out program in 1995.

Hetzler said the white sea bass program was started to help replenish the species’ population.

“I volunteered to head up this program. We convinced the Huntington Harbour Anglers (another older Huntington Harbour fishing club) and the Bolsa Chica Foundation, a local conservation group dedicated to enhance the Bolsa Chica wetlands, to support the development of a Huntington Harbour white sea bass grow out program,” Hetzler said.

A nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization was established in 1995 and the grow-out pen was built in 1996, Hetzler said. 

“What is unique about this program is it was solely developed from donated funds and operated entirely by volunteers,” Hetzler said. “The hatchery was built from mitigation funds received from the San Diego Gas & Electric Company when they built the nuclear electric plant in San Onofre. The hatchery operating funds are obtained from an enhancement tax added to California salt water fishing licenses sold to recreational fishermen from Santa Barbara to San Diego.”

Hetzler said the grow-out program has, to date, released about 50,000 fish. He added the collective effort to bring back the white sea bass population has succeeded and the state is now looking into replicating the program to preserve other fish species.

“One of our fish released in 2003 was caught in 2015 having been free for 12.6 years.  We have no weight on the fish as the hatchery only received the head of the caught fish,” he said. “Many of the operating procedures developed by the HOPE pen are now being used by other pens.

“The white sea bass stocks have fully recovered and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife are in the process of reviewing the program for enhancement of other depleted fish stocks such as halibut, bass and other species,” Hetzler continued.

Several fish species could benefit from a similar replenishment program, Hetzler said.

“Other fish considered for enhancement are kelp and sand bass, especially the sand bass.  Barracuda stocks also appear to be very low,” he said. “There have been a number of other programs that have made a major impact on the recovery of sea bass stocks including reducing the fish catch by recreational anglers, the reduction of the commercial catch by limiting the fishing period and moving the gill net fishermen offshore three miles from any land mass including islands.”

For more information on OREHP visit tinyurl.com/jutokkf.

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