Sea bass pens help replenish stocks, but fishery still a work in progress

Balboa Angling Club has been working with Pacific Fisheries Enhancement Foundation to restore sea bass populations since 1993.

NEWPORT BEACH—News reports of the giant sea bass fishery steadily recovering after years of decline do not appear to be greatly (or even mildly) exaggerated, thanks to coordinated efforts in Newport Beach and elsewhere to restore the species in sustainable numbers. The current state of the giant sea bass was actually prime fodder at a recent Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce meeting, where a member of the Balboa Angling Club gave a presentation of the conservation and recovery efforts surrounding the species.

Balboa Angling Club’s Mike Berdine provided a broad overview of the history and effectiveness of white sea bass pens at Newport Beach Harbor; the first-ever pen arrived in Newport Beach in 1993. The Pacific Fisheries Enhancement Foundation, or Pac Fish, co-operates the Newport Beach Harbor pens with Balboa Angling Club, according to Berdine. No one has complete data of the whether conservation or restoration efforts have fully paid off, Berdine added, but there is certainly visual evidence confirming progress.

“We know [more than] 2,000,000 white sea bass have been released through the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program from grow-out pens ranging from San Diego to Santa Barbara,” Berdine told The Log in an email. “While we don’t have exact statistics on the benefits of the program, we know the species was depleted when the program started and now large white sea bass are being caught up and down the Southern California coast.”

The goal of the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program, according to Berdine, is to counteract coastal fish depletions through restocking. Conservation and restoration efforts actually date back to 1982, when all fishing of black sea bass were banned within California waters.

More than two million white sea bass have been tagged and released since 1986, Berdine added, with data collected from 1,200 or so recoveries.

Sea bass definitely appear to be making a comeback, but no one is in a position to take the foot off the pedal when it comes to maintaining or improving fish stocks, according to Berdine.

“When it comes to conservation of fish stocks, it seems there is always need to continue the work,” Berdine told The Log.

The Balboa Angling Club, fortunately, has been up to the task.

“We have a range of responsibilities taken by our volunteers. Currently, we have another dozen or so volunteers who help out on special events like fish deliveries, education days, and cleaning and repair events. There are also four people handle daily work duties of feeding, taking instrumentation readings and cleaning,” Berdine said.


White Sea Bass: A Primer

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) describes the white sea bass as a popular sportfish and common target of commercial fishermen. The commercial and recreational fishery for white sea bass in California dates back to the 1890s, according to DFW staff.

“The white sea bass … has an elongated body, large mouth, and a raised ridge along the length of its belly,” DFW staff stated on the department’s website about fish. “It is grey-blue to copper on its back, with dark specks on its sides and a silver belly. It has a black spot on the inner base of its pectoral fins. Young white sea bass have dark bars on the side.

“White sea bass may be confused with the shortfin corvina (which has 1 or 2 large canine teeth on each side of the upper jaw) or the queenfish (which has a wider gap between the dorsal fins and more soft rays in its anal fin),” DFW staff continued.

Berdine said he personally learned a lot about white sea bass through his involvement with the pens.

“I’ve learned that white sea bass are more reclusive than other fish, preferring shaded areas to open water,” Berdine told The Log. “They also require a special formulation of food to thrive. Also, water quality influenced by rain run-off (pollution, mud and dissolved oxygen levels) and temperature has a profound effect on white sea bass health.”


The Pens at Newport Beach

Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute delivers sea bass to Newport Beach Harbor’s pens, usually from late fall to early spring. The fish are transported from the delivery tank trailers to pens by large hand buckets. Each bucket is boarded onto a small boat, which navigates from Balboa Angling Club to the pen.

“The buckets are delivered to the pens and slowly lowered into the water in the pen. The fish, who are approximately 4 inches long, have a 1 millimeter coded wire injected under the skin of their heads before they are delivered,” Berdine explained. “We raise the fish to release size, approximately 11 inches, give or take an inch or two. It takes about four to five months for the fish to grow to release size.”

Berdine added Balboa Angling Club maintains four pens, each one with a 2,500 sea bass capacity.

“Currently, we have 2,300 fish we are growing for release and 170 in a special long term study,” Berdine told The Log via email. “The long-term study fish are [more than] two years old and [more than] 24 inches long. Once the fish reach release size, we simply remove end grates from the pen and let the fish swim out. But, since the fish have never been in the wild, it takes them some time to swim away.”

The pens received sizable contributions from the Pfleger family; the city of Newport Beach provided the moorings for Balboa Angling Club’s pens. Each of the four pens have fence enclosures, fiberglass sides and bottoms and removable grates. The pens’ feeders are battery powered and equipped with a solar panel.

Educating the public about sea bass pens is an essential element of the conservation and restoration process, Berdine added.

“There is also a public education component to the pen project. Two Boy Scout troops have visited the pens in the last year, and, in the past, it was a regular stop for Ocean Quest school group tours,” Berdine told The Log. “We continue to encourage that sort of community involvement.”


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