Saving the Seabass
The Marina del Rey Anglers raise what they hope to catch
By Bonnie Eslinger
When local anglers head out from Marina del Rey to fish the waters of the Santa Monica Bay, their potential haul includes halibut, yellowtail and maybe, if they’re lucky, the elusive California White Seabass.
California White Seabass have long been popular among sport and commercial fishers — so popular that the stock in Southern California was severely depleted, said Mark Drawbridge, a senior research scientist at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
Although changing ocean conditions and loss of shallow estuary breeding habitat may play a role, he said, overfishing is probably the primary cause of the seabass’ precipitous decline from the early 1960s into the 1980s.
In an effort to turn the tide, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a fisheries program in recent decades to repopulate California’s coastal waters with seabass.
An important part of that effort, Marina del Rey hosts one of the state’s 10 “growout” sites where baby seabass are tended to by volunteers for several months until they are big enough to conceivably fend for themselves in the ocean.
The Marina del Rey Anglers, a local saltwater fishing club, owns and operates these two local pens, located in a slip adjacent to Burton Chace Park.
A Sporting Give-and-Take
Marina del Rey realtor Keith Moret, who oversees the Angler’s growout pens, spent a Saturday morning in September feeding the group’s 6,000-plus seabass minnows, delivered to the group from a hatchery in early July.
“They’re great. We’ve gotten really attached to them,” Moret said as he threw high-protein food pellets into the water and watched the silvery-white juvenile seabass fish swim up to the water’s surface to feed.
Although the Marina del Rey Anglers have been participating in the state’s Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program for about 15 years, the club’s two fiberglass “raceway” growout pens are new — built over the last year at a cost of about $35,000, much of it raised through donations. The old pens had been weathered by time and storms, Moret said.
Protected above the water by a chain-link fence and a canvas roof, the Angler’s growout setup includes an automatic feeding mechanism and equipment to maintain healthy oxygen levels in the water. Metal gates on the underwater sides of the pens let fresh water flow through while protecting the small fish from ocean predators.
“The seals would love to come in and eat all our fish,” Moret said.
About a dozen members of the fishing club are part of the current rotation of volunteers, called “pen pals,” who do daily check-ins at the growout pens. The job includes scrubbing the end gates with wire brushes to prevent algae and bacteria buildup.
“As fisherman we often get accused, ‘You guys are the ones taking all the fish.’ So we wanted to be involved with something that gives back to the fishery,” Moret said. “I’ve caught white seabass before, but I hadn’t caught one in a long time.”
100,000 Fish and Counting
The juvenile fish came from Hubbs, a non-profit research organization affiliated with SeaWorld and contracted by the state to run the enhancement program, including a hatchery in Carlsbad where the fish are spawned and reared.
Four breeding groups produce fish several times a year, Drawbridge said. California White Seabass begin as nearly microscopic eggs (about a millimeter in diameter) that hatch into free-swimming larvae.
“After about 40 days, they start to look like fish. We move them out to the pens when they’re about 100 days old,” he said.
Each fish was about three to four inches in length when first delivered to their temporary growout homes and will typically be about eight inches long at the time of release. Mature fish can grow as long as several feet and weigh more than 50 pounds.
Before Hubbs delivers the fish, a hair-like coded wire tag is inserted into the cheek muscle of each fish. When commercial and recreational fishers voluntarily turn the heads of the seabass they catch into collection stations at various docks up and down the coast, Hubbs biologists can scan the tags to learn when each fish was raised and where it was released.
“We use that data to understand how to release the fish to maximize their chances of survival,” Drawbridge said.
Hubbs also monitors the fish to determine when they’re ready to be released out into the wild and helps train the growout pen volunteers, assistance that Moret described as invaluable to the program’s success.
“None of us are marine biologists. We’re just fisherman,” he said.
After the fish are released, the Anglers clean out the pens and do some maintenance in preparation for another batch of fish.
“This release is particularly significant for us because it will put us at over 100,000 juvenile seabass released [by the Anglers] since we first started,” Moret said with discernable pride.
‘A Heck of a Comeback’
The newly-released seabass in Marina del Rey will be too small to legally take from the ocean; it will be several years before they reach the state-required minimum of 28 inches.
In the bigger picture, the statewide hatchery and growout program has so far released about 2.2 million seabass back into the ocean, Drawbridge said.
Rick Oefinger, owner of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, gives credit to the program for greatly improved California White Seabass hauls over the past 20 years.
“The last 10 years or so has been probably some of the best white seabass fishing in Southern California history,” said Oefinger, whose company charters several fishing trips out of the harbor each day. “They’ve made a heck of a comeback. I think the Hubbs-SeaWorld program has been a tremendous success.”
“Back in the day it wasn’t nearly as common to catch them in the numbers we do now, and everybody accepts that it’s because of the white seabass program,” concurs Mike Thompson, a manager with Channel Islands Sports Fishing in Ventura County.
California White Seabass catches have died down a bit over the past two years due to warmer coastal water temperatures attributed to the El Niño cycle. Adult seabass typically feed on squid, and as squid move further out to sea to find colder waters, so do the seabass, Oefinger and Thompson said.
But El Niño gives as much as it takes, bringing with it exotic species typical to the Mexican coast, high numbers of marlin, and “the best yellowtail scene in my lifetime,” Oefinger said.
People who hunt and fish are coupled to conservation efforts as the sale of hunting licenses, tags and stamps is a primary source of federal funding toward efforts to protect animal life and habitats, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“This is one of the most prized game fish there is, white seabass,” said Moret. “When there’s more it encourages people to go out and buy a license, buy fishing tackle, pay money to go on the party boats. Recreational sport fishing generates a lot of revenue for the economy and for the state.”
The $1.3 million earmarked this year for California’s Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program comes from an enhancement stamp on fishing licenses and federal Sportfish Restoration Act dollars. Hubbs pitches in another $500,000 on top of that, according to Drawbridge.
The hatchery program began in 1982 and started releasing fish in 1986. While its initial research also focused on California halibut, it eventually narrowed down to white seabass exclusively because of the “depressed condition of the stock and its higher value to both the recreational and commercial fisheries,” according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.
Catch and Release
In late September, the Marina del Rey Anglers released their latest group of seabass, with volunteers opening the gates to let the fish swim with the outbound tide into the unprotected waters of the Santa Monica Bay.
“I was a little bit emotional about it, but I was happy to see them go. It’s sort of like kids growing up. It’s also great to feel like we contributed something to a sport that we love, helping to sustain the fishery,” Moret said.
“And, to be honest, I want to catch some of them in about three or four years.”
Learn more about the Marina del Rey Anglers at mdranglers.com.