White sea bass were at the center of a talk led by Balboa Angling Club members this week, which focused on breeding the fish, increasing its numbers off of the California coast, and Newport’s role replenishing the sport fish.
BAC President Mike Parks and Mike Berdine, a volunteer (along with a handful of others) with the club’s Pacific Fisheries Enhancement Program, spoke at the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Marine Committee monthly meeting on Tuesday, held at Marina Park on Balboa Peninsula.
The goal of the program, part of a larger, overarching state program, is to counteract coastal fish depletion by restocking. It’s funded primarily through the fishing license stamps, Berdine explained.
The project is part of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute White Sea Bass Stock Enhancement Program. The fish are hatched at the Hubbs institute in Carlsbad, raised in grow-out pens in Newport Beach harbor (and 24 other locations up and down the California coast, including newly opened pens in Avalon) and then released.
The program is run by volunteers who feed, observe behavior, monitor their condition (Berdine told a story about a parasite that killed thousands a few years ago) read instruments, and more.
Berdine also went over the history of the program.
In the 1950s, more than 50,000 white sea bass were caught annually by recreational fishermen. By 1978, that number had decreased to less than 500 a year. Similar trends were reported by commercial fishing.
Now, the black sea bass is “almost dead,” Parks commented. Although fishermen can still find the breed off the coast of Mexico, he doesn’t condone it.
They support “good, common (sense) angling practices,” Parks said.
It all started as a vision from Milt Shedd, the co-founder of Sea World and an active fisherman in Newport Beach. Shedd recognized a need for white sea bass in Southern California, as the white sea bass numbers had dropped to almost nothing.
In the mid-1980s, Shedd met with world-renowned marine biologist Dr. Carl L. Hubbs and came up with the idea to breed white sea bass. The program started and started growing.
In 1992, Jock Albright was president of the Balboa Angling Club and was approached by Shedd. Albright helped get the ball rolling in Newport, Berdine explained.
The city donated a mooring and the Pfleger family contributed significant donations, and with that, the Newport program was born. The first pen in Newport was set up in 1993.
So far the program has been “pretty successful,” Berdine said, although they always would like to collect more data.
A microscopic tag is implanted in their heads, which can be scanned if the fish is caught and the head turned into a drop off facility. Officials urge anglers to save their white sea bass heads to help contribute to the program.
The pens are usually filled in the spring when they are about four inches long. Volunteers use a “bucket brigade” to gently lower the fish in to the pens, Berdine explained.
After about five months, when they grow to about 12 inches, they are released. Volunteers “simply lift the gates,” Berdine explained, although the fish, who have been safe and fed for free for several months, are sometimes hesitant to leave, he joked.
The statewide program has tagged and released more than 2 million white sea bass since 1986. Data has been collected from about 1,200 recovered fish heads.