NEW RELEASE OF SEA BASS CREWS WORK TO RESTOCK PACIFIC POPULATION.
As seagulls hungrily circled overhead and ocean waves rocked the sports-fishing vessel, the crew of the Cat Special scooped up netfulls of white sea bass and dumped them over the side.
In less than half an hour, 1,500 of the fish were released into the waters just outside of Ventura County's Channel Islands Harbor, on their way to growing several times their size.
``It's real exciting,'' said Tom McCormick, director of the Channel Islands Marine Resource Institute in Port Hueneme as he observed the release. ``It's nine months of work.''
Last week's release was the third batch of white sea bass dropped since 1999 by the institute, which is among 15 facilities from Santa Barbara to San Diego volunteering in the ocean replenishing program.
Established in 1984 through state legislation, the Ocean Research Enhancement and Hatchery Program has since released 450,000 white sea bass, and aims to release almost that many annually to replenish the waters off Southern California and keep the fishing industry strong.
The program now contributes about 5 percent of the ocean's white sea bass population.
``It was set up to determine if we can enhance wildlife stock in the ocean by hatchery introductions,'' said senior marine biologist Steven Crooke of the state Fish and Game Department, which administers the program.
``This is the first time anyone has taken a truly marine fish and attempted to rear it on the West Coast.''
Marine biologists attributed the fish's decline to overharvesting, habitat destruction and climatic changes in the ocean.
``They were depleted,'' said Tom Raftican, president of the United Anglers of Southern California. ``They were a fishery in peril.''
The nonprofit institute in Port Hueneme released about 350 fish in 1999 and an additional 850 last year.
Since April, the group, with the help of Oxnard College marine biology students, raised the most recent batch of fingerlings in a 5,000-gallon tank.
Those released Friday were about 10 inches long and about half a pound in weight - compared with the 5-foot, 80-pound sea bass that are among the largest caught.
``We feel this is our job that we can do for the community, help grow the fish and put it back,'' McCormick said. ``We have two basic goals: one is marine enhancement and the other aspect is education.''
The institute, which is also helping to restore the endangered white abalone, is building an outdoor tank farm that will be completed in the first months of next year.
The facility will allow it to raise up to 6,000 white sea bass a year, McCormick said. A fresh batch of fingerlings is expected at the beginning of the year.
``I thought it was a good thing,'' said Oxnard College student Camille Timan, who helped transport the fish from the institute to the boat last week. ``It's the only way to avoid fish and stuff from being extinct.''
As a fisherman, Cat Special's Capt. John Fuqua also supports the program.
``I catch more white sea bass than anyone along the coast,'' said Fuqua, who said he caught 1,400 this year. ``I want to give something back.''
It's too soon to say if the program is successful because not enough fish have been put back out in the ocean, Crooke said.
It takes three to four years for a white sea bass to reach the legal catch size of 28 inches, he said. Officials estimated a little more than 17,000 hatchery-produced white adult sea bass at the end of 2000.
Four times a year, participants from California State University, Northridge, and San Diego State University conduct field studies to assess distribution and abundance of hatchery-reared fish.
Plus, he believes the fish are on a rebound mostly due to state regulations curtailing catch by commercial and sports fishermen, the banning of gill nets and more favorable ocean conditions that allow spawning.
``This year we will have the most released with over 100,000,'' Crooke said.
But Raftican put more weight on the program.
``We are seeing the best white sea bass fishery in two generations, and this program is clearly part of that success,'' he said.
The program operates with a $1.4 million budget, funded with $825,000 annually from stamps anglers are required to have on their fishing licenses, and other sources.
Raftican's anglers group has raised money to build pens and contributes more than 20,000 volunteer hours a year to raise and care for the white sea bass.
``The Pacific Ocean is a finite resource,'' Raftican said. ``If we continue to take fish out, sooner or later we'll get to the last one if we don't do something along the way.
``The program is a way of putting fish back and actually enhancing our Southern California fishery.''
Cat Special crew member Ian Nicholson unloads a net full of white sea bass outside the Channel Islands Harbor last week.
Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Dec 10, 2001|
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