They came rushing out of a pipe, shimmering under the sun and wriggling into the murky green water they'll call home for the next four months.
More than 2,500 white sea bass fingerlings, a mere 3 inches long, were delivered to Dana Point Harbor grow-out pens Friday as part of a statewide effort to restock the coastal waters of Southern California with depleted species of fish.
Volunteers with the Dana Point Fisheries Enhancement Program have been tending to large batches of the fish since 1994, feeding them and checking for any signs of disease until the fish are big enough--about 10 inches long--to be released into the ocean.
"The idea is to reestablish the fishery of the white sea bass," said John Riordan, a San Clemente resident and president of the Fisheries Enhancement Program. "Their numbers have been depleted through overfishing, and we want to see them in the water again."
Dana Point's complex of pens is one of 10 sites from Santa Barbara to San Diego that are part of the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program, sponsored by the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute and the California Department of Fish and Game. Last year, 65,000 white sea bass were released into Southern California's waters, said Jock Albright, grow-out facility coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game. Ultimately, officials hope to release 400,000 fish annually through the program.
The project has faced its share of challenges. Grow-out pens in Marina del Rey were repeatedly broken into by sea lions, Riordan said, and other pens had problems with disease organisms that attack fish in a confined space.
And low salinity at some of the pens, caused by excessive freshwater runoff from El Nino rains, has killed some fish.
"It's been a learning process," Riordan said. But the last two batches released from the Dana Point Harbor pens have been healthy, he said. In the last batch of 1,200 fish, there were only four deaths.
White sea bass can grow to more than 80 pounds and about 5 feet in length, Albright said. They have to measure at least 28 inches before they can be legally caught.
In the meantime, Dana Point's 60 volunteers will continue to tend to the fish.
"It gives us a chance to give something back," Riordan said.