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Looking for Ms. Sea Bass : Mate Sought for Big Morris in Edison Project

Times Staff Writer

Morris, the giant sea bass, needs a companion.

And Southern California Edison, the giant utility, is playing matchmaker.

The company operates a research laboratory at its Redondo Beach power plant where scientists are studying, among other things, the sexual rites of giant sea bass.

They want Morris to help father some little giant sea bass. So, presumably, does Morris, who resides there, Southern California-style, in a redwood cold tub bereft of other giant sea bass.

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“Judging from his size, he appears to be at the age where he’s becoming sexually mature,” said Edison’s Kevin Herbinson the other day, standing outside the tub.

Inside, Morris, a 35-pound 6-year-old, meandered slowly about, ignoring his barracuda and mackerel tub mates as well as scientists and media types gazing through an observation window. Morris appeared to be frowning, but Herbinson said his expression was misleading.

“The slope of his forehead sort of narrows his eyes and makes him look mean,” he explained.

Actually, giant sea bass, which are native to California waters, are passive creatures whose numbers have dwindled to such an extent that hunting them is now forbidden by law.

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“Spear fishermen were the big reason for their decline,” said Herbinson, a fisheries scientist. “They (spear fishers) can approach to within 20 feet of them. It’s sort of like shooting a friendly cow.”

The big bass are hunted mainly for sport. In fact, one 400-pound distant relative of Morris is mounted in a diving shop just a few blocks away.

Edison’s interest in saltwater fish stems from its use of ocean water as a coolant at its eight plants.

“We use the resource (the ocean), the fish use the resource,” Herbinson said. “So we’re interested in the preservation of the marine environment. We hope to get enough brood stock (of the giant sea bass) to describe their development, because no one seems to know what they look like in their early stages. By doing that, we can get an idea of the extent of the adult population in the area.”

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Edison has a collector’s permit from the state Department of Fish and Game and would like to find half a dozen companions for Morris.

However, tub space is limited. A giant sea bass caught in 1968 measured 7 1/2 feet in length and weighed 563 pounds. The tub is only 25 feet in diameter.

Smaller Giants Needed

“We’d have to find some in the 40- to 80-pound range,” Herbinson said, gazing through the window. Morris the single sea bass was motionless, as though waiting.

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The big fish aren’t easy to find. Recently, Edison scientists sighted some off the Channel Islands but decided that they weren’t yet ready to attempt to catch and transport them.

Edison is also exploring the possibility of making arrangements with boats that fish off Mexico, where giant sea bass are still caught. Morris was hooked by a fisherman in that area a year ago. The fisherman contacted an aquarium, which contacted Edison.

Of course, no one is absolutely sure that the Morris is a male.

Dissection Required

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“The only way you can tell for sure is to slice them open,” said Steve Caddell, a marine biologist with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, which is assisting in the study. “We had a smaller one that Morris seemed to be friendly with. But that one developed a bacterial infection and died. We cut it open and found that it was a female. Then we got another one. He (Morris) went after it and basically chased it to death. That fish was a male, so we think Morris is a male.”

Lab technician Gary Caddell (brother of Steve) approached the tank, carrying a tray of food with one hand. He resembled a waiter, except for the rubber gloves.

“I never get tips though,” he joked. “Only splashed.”

He dropped in some herring and other tidbits for the smaller fish, as well as an 8-inch-long piece of mackerel for Morris.

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Morris nibbled some of it and let the rest sink to the bottom.

A Picky Eater

Whether lovesick or just picky, Morris is particular about what he eats, even though he dines only three times a week. In fact, his name derives from the fact that he reminds the scientists of the finicky cat of television commercials.

“We fed him croaker at first, and then one day it’s as though he just decided he wouldn’t eat it anymore,” Steve Caddell said. “Since then we’ve been giving him mackerel.”

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“Once in a while he nibbles some herring,” his brother added.

Morris is so tame that he can be fed by hand just below the surface. This personal touch enables the scientists to make sure that Morris gulps down vitamin pills and antibiotics that are sometimes inserted into his food.

“But he does have a temper,” Gary Caddell said with a laugh. “One time I was having some fun with him by holding his food just above the water. After a while he decided he’d had enough. He turned around and splashed me with his tail.”

Though Morris may literally outgrow his usefulness, his future is by no means bleak. Some of the giants have been known to live upwards of 90 years.

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“We could eventually release him (into the ocean),” Herbinson said. “Or (the Department of) Fish and Game might want to put him out to stud in a hatchery.”


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