For more than 25 years, tens of thousands of young white sea bass have been under the care of volunteers from the Balboa Angling Club, who want to see more of the fish in the Pacific.
At a fenced barge in Mooring Field A at Newport Harbor, club volunteer Jim Updike dipped a net into a submerged fiberglass pen teeming with 2,300 fingerlings, scooping up enough flopping specimens to make the mesh quiver. He noted that at about 6 inches they were about the same size as when they were transplanted from a San Diego-area hatchery two weeks before. They’re about a month and a half old.
The fish will stay in the grow-out pen before being released when they’re about a foot long to continue maturing in the wild, enhancing a population that was nearly decimated between the 1950s and 1980s.
The Balboa Angling Club does this fieldwork on behalf of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute’s Carlsbad hatchery, which cultures the juveniles from wild broodstock captured around Catalina Island. More than 2.4 million white sea bass have been raised and released throughout Southern California since 1986 through the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program, which Hubbs coordinates for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Of those fish, 160,000 have gone through the Newport pens, said Mike Shane, Hubbs’ director of fisheries enhancement.
“There’s no other program like it in the world with regard to how it operates,” he said.
Newport’s pen is one of 13 between Santa Barbara and San Diego. In 1993, it was one of the first to take on fingerlings as operations expanded. Huntington Beach and Dana Point have the only other pens in Orange County.
Young fish are produced year-round at the Carlsbad hatchery, where they get tiny wire tags embedded in their cheeks. The 1mm tags, which resemble a fragment of mechanical pencil lead, enable researchers to study the sea bass’s movement, diet, growth and especially survival rate. Anglers who catch them in the wild can drop off their frozen heads at several locations, including the Balboa Angling Club’s clubhouse, so they can be scanned for tags.
The city of Newport Beach manages the harbor moorings — which are almost entirely occupied by stately pleasure craft — and donated a large patch of water for the local barge.
The barge, surrounded by tall chain link to foil sea lions, holds four 3-foot-deep pens, each about 14 by 6 feet and covered by wood-framed screens fashioned by an Eagle Scout. The screens are intended to block sea gulls, though gulls — Updike calls them Frick or Frack — do swoop in when people visit, perching on the solar panel powering the automatic feeders that churn out nutrients when volunteers aren’t there. Muddy three-toed tracks on one screen show that their hope springs eternal.
Volunteers like Updike check water temperature and oxygen saturation, feed the fish by hand to observe behavior, and suction out the waste, sediment and marine growth that collects in the pens.
A smaller group of older fish being kept for separate study seems unbothered by the vacuum, but the fingerlings huddle as far away as they can get. Updike carefully records his data in a binder.
The pens have a mesh gate at one end that allow water to circulate and in the fall will be the door to the wild. Sometimes the fish, which are accustomed to swimming in a tight school in the confined space, need to be shooed out with a broom, Updike said.
Shane said fish that spent time in the Newport pens have been found in the immediate area and as far away as La Jolla to the south and the Channel Islands to the north.
Recovery rates, however, have been low, according to a 2017 paper by the California Sea Grant Extension Program out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Of about 2,000 fish recaptured throughout the life of the enhancement program, about 200 had Newport tags. With more than 2 million fish released so far, that’s an overall return rate of less than 1%. Recapturing some of the fish is intended to see if and how fish reared in captivity enhance the total population.
Shane acknowledged that recovery has been limited but said funding — covered partly by state fishing license fees — also has been low and that the program never had a hard recovery target. Funding was about $1.6 million from fiscal 2013 to 2015 and $1.3 million in fiscal 2016 and ’17, according to the most recent figures available.
Shane said white sea bass grabbed attention after catches plummeted in the mid- to late 20th century. More than 62,000 fish were caught by recreational anglers in 1949 but fewer than 300 in 1978, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Looking back, “white sea bass probably wouldn’t be one of the first to be selected [for enhancement] because of the challenges with management,” Shane said. “They go everywhere.”
But he said there are other avenues for study.
Researchers are working with geneticists to see if the released fish, if not caught, are producing offspring. They’ve also used acoustic telemetry to better understand their movement. The state is considering adding California halibut and barred sand bass to the enhancement program, Shane said.
Mike Parks, Balboa Angling Club president, said anglers will eat their catch — white sea bass are known for their mild, flaky flesh — but they also practice catch-and-release and welcome more volunteers to maintain the local pens. They don’t want white sea bass to go the way of the giant black sea bass, which is considered critically endangered.