Sea Bass Hatchery Is Opened : Conservation: Carlsbad facility hopes to produce 350,000 fish a year.


The surfers who flocked to this city's beaches last Friday probably had no idea what the commotion at the lagoon across the highway was all about.

The commuters riding the train through town could, at best, catch only a glimpse of what must have seemed nothing more than a big party.

And few could have guessed that it was being held in honor of fish--white sea bass--and the people who for the last 13 years have been working to bring more of them into the world.

About 300 people, many of them deeply involved in the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program--a fisheries enhancement project funded and managed by the California Department of Fish and Game--were on hand to celebrate the opening of the Leon Raymond Hubbard Jr. Marine Fish Hatchery.

The hatchery, completed after two years of planning and 15 months of construction at a cost of $2.3 million, is capable of producing more than 350,000 white sea bass a year.

"It's not often in our lives that we have the opportunity to be part of something truly grand," said Donald B. Kent, senior vice president at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, which since 1983 had been raising white sea bass in a small-scale experimental hatchery at the marine park. More than 170,000 juvenile fish have been released into coastal waters.

The opening of the full-scale hatchery on Agua Hedionda Lagoon, therefore, is considered a major milestone for OREHP.

"Hopefully, the big lunkers in there [the hatchery] will spawn some real fish stories in the years to come," said Paul O'Neal, spokesman for San Diego Gas and Electric, which donated the land on which the hatchery was built.

OREHP began in 1982 as an attempt to assess the feasibility of supplementing ocean stocks, which have declined significantly over the years.

In large part because of over-fishing and loss of wetlands--estuaries provide a nursery grounds for several species of fish--white sea bass became one such stock.

Sportfishing catches in California dropped from more than 55,000 fish annually in the early 1950s to fewer than 3,500 in the early 1990s. Commercial catches dropped accordingly.

White sea bass aren't alone in their plight, but they were the species selected by OREHP as Guinea pigs in this program, and the beneficiaries someday could be Southland anglers and commercial fishermen.

However, it will be years before that can be determined. And the completion of the hatchery doesn't mean that OREHP's work load will be lightened.

The collection of broodstock will be an ongoing task. The hatchery can accommodate 200 fish, and males must be replaced regularly to help assure genetic diversity, so many more will have to be captured and monitored each year. And anyone who has fished for white sea bass knows how fickle and elusive they can be.

The United Anglers of Southern California, a volunteer group that has helped build and maintain grow-out pens in Southland harbors, has pledged to do its part in keeping the broodstock coming in. Hatchery-raised fingerlings will be transferred to grow-out pens from San Diego to Santa Barbara at three-four inches and will be grown to eight-10 inches before being released into the ocean.

The Sportfishing Assn. of California, which represents most of the Southland party-boat fleet, hopes to get skippers and anglers involved in the capture of broodstock.

But keeping fish alive in bait tanks, particularly on long trips, is no easy task. And not many skippers will be willing to jeopardize a tank of valuable squid by dropping a hungry sea bass into it.

The employees at the hatchery, meanwhile, can't wait to put opening day behind them and get their hands on more fish.

"It's so nice to have this day pass because there's been so much hoopla," Kent said. "I mean, it's real exciting and everything, but now we can just sort of relax and do what we built the place to do."

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