Feature Article: White Seabass Enhancement

Future of the white seabass enhancement program in question

BY PAUL LEBOWITZ/WON Staff WriterPublished: Apr 11, 2018

Oldest tagged fish caught recently, yet a report indicates stocking white seabass isn’t adding significantly to the wild population

In late January, kayak angler Greg Barnicoat caught a unicorn. While fishing off Torrance targeting halibut in 145 feet, he hooked a mystery fish under a school of fin bait. It towed him for five minutes. During the fight, Barnicoat had to stop and leave the fish on the bottom as a group of sea lions passed by. When it finally surfaced, he was surprised to see a white seabass.

Hang on, it gets better. Barnicoat, who volunteers at the King Harbor white seabass growout pen, did what any angler should do. He turned the seabass head into a collection point for the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute. Under the auspices of the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP), Hubbs runs a white seabass hatchery in Carlsbad. Grow-out pens are spread throughout the California bight. The program is administered by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). The hatchery program, largely funded by recreational anglers through the Ocean Enhancement Stamp, is a popular one whose history has coincided with a welcome rise in once-depleted white seabass numbers. Arguably, the fishery is as good as it has been since the middle part of last century.

IN JANUARY, KAYAK angler Greg Barnicoat caught a 46.5-pound white seabass off Torrance. Later, the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute determined it to be the oldest hatchery-raised white seabass caught to date, over 20 years old. The notable catch came just as the hatchery program’s future was coming into doubt due to the release of an evaluation that determined it has contributed less than one percent to enhance wild stocks of seabass.

Every time Hubbs rears a batch of fish, each one receives a coded wire tag that identifies its history. The magnetically encoded tags can be scanned to give up their data.

Here’s where the unicorn comes in. Two months later, Barnicoat received an email from Hubbs. In part, it read: “I have great news; the fish was tagged and is our oldest fish recovered to date! It came from a spawn in August of 1997 and released near Dana Point in February of 1998, making it a little over 20 years old when you caught it… Congratulations again on the amazing catch.”

Barnicoat was pleased. “It’s very satisfying, more so because I’ve been doing the labor at King Harbor for several years. The anticipation of catching one had built up,” he said.

For Hubbs, Barnicoat’s catch and the subsequent tag recovery were significant. The previous oldest tag recovery was a 15-year-old fish according to the Institute’s Mark Drawbridge. “It’s really encouraging to know that it’s possible for these tags to stay in a long time. For a marine fish that spends its life in the ocean, it’s exciting,” he said. Barnicoat’s fish weighed 46.5 pounds; it was 52 inches long. It came from a batch of 1,900 fish released from a boat a couple miles south of Dana Pt. Harbor.

The tag recovery came at a critical time. In December 2017, the California Sea Grant Extension Program at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography submitted a report evaluating the OREHP. It was the first such report in the program’s history. The results were mixed and, in some circles controversial, and bring the hatchery program’s future into question.

Good News and Bad

The evaluation was congratulatory in tone concerning the valuable science accomplished by Hubbs since the OREHP’s establishment by the California legislature in 1983. Hubbs broke several scientific barriers, including learning how to propagate, rear, stock and distribute an important marine fish, the white seabass.

On the other side of the ledger, the report indicated that nearly 35 years of efforts have made almost no difference in the number of white seabass in the wild. More specifically, it concluded that an analysis of tag-recapture data between 2000 and 2011 determined that the program had made less than a 1 percent contribution to enhancing the California white seabass population and fishery due to high mortality following release into the wild. It further estimated that if the mortality rates of released hatchery fish were equal to those of wild white seabass, current stocking rates would result in a hatchery contribution of 18 percent. The recovery of white seabass numbers? That was attributed to fisheries management (such as the elimination of coastal inshore gill nets) and environmental factors.

The Coastal Conservation Association of California (CCA-California) disagrees with the conclusion that the enhancement program hasn’t been effective in adding to the wild population of white seabass. More on this later.

To address the low recruitment of hatchery-raised white seabass into the wild population, the report recommended three options: 1) Continue the OREHP with revisions to improve post-release survival and assess economic costs; 2) Continue the OREHP with a new focal species that prioritizes OREHP objectives; and 3) Discontinue the program.

The report identified other issues, chiefly chronic underfunding and a strong difference of opinion between Hubbs and the DFW’s pathologist on the definition of a deformed white seabass. The DFW pathologist was more likely to classify fish as deformed.

The latter problem has resulted in fish euthanasia and delayed deliveries and releases, hampering the efficacy of the program according to Bill Shedd, chairman of the board for the CCA-California, a member of the OREHP Advisory Panel, and a man intimately connected with the original establishment of the program through legislation sponsored by now defunct United Anglers of Southern California (UASC). CCA-California has stepped into the gap left by UASC; its volunteers raise hatchery white seabass in grow-out pens and help during releases.

Valerie Taylor coordinates the OREHP for the DFW. Asked to address the implications of the report in broad terms, she said: “We’re going to start looking at potential different directions. It will involve public input as well as discussion with the OREHP Advisory Panel and the legislature.”

Three town hall meetings will be convened in Southern California in late spring and early summer to solicit comments from the public and stakeholders on the evaluation and what they believe the future direction of the program should be, Taylor said.

Taylor agrees with the report’s conclusions on the value of the science gained and the partnerships made. “The OREHP brought in state agencies, stakeholders, and private citizens all working together to enhance a species that was determined to be in decline in the 1980s. It answered the question, can you actually raise a marine fish in a hatchery. Hubbs has proven that they can do that,” she said.

On the difference of opinion on fish deformity between Hubbs and the DFW pathologist, Taylor said: “It’s basically two different perspectives. You probably see this in a lot of places. One scientist has an idea; another scientist disagrees. We are considering the recommendation of the Science Advisory Committee (SAC) to have an internal panel to decide on deformities.” Hubbs deferred all comment on the evaluation to the DFW.

Nothing is likely to happen quickly, particularly if the answer is to switch the enhancement program to a new species. Taylor estimates it would take a minimum of 7 to 10 years. Whether a species can be raised successfully in captivity is research based, involving questions of genetics, disease, the viability for release, etc. “We certainly couldn’t switch in a few months,” she said. Halibut is one possibility; Hubbs has conducted some preliminary research.

CCA-California Fires Back

Now let’s consider the outside criticisms of the report briefly addressed earlier, from one of the program’s biggest proponents. Back to Bill Shedd:

“Our main objection is the report takes as fact that less than 1 percent of the population is from the hatchery. We don‘t have enough information to make that statement. They just looked at the number of heads that had a tag in it and it was less than 1 percent. From a practical standpoint they don’t know how many of the tags fall out,” Shedd said.

OREHP Coordinator Taylor said that the hatchery fish mortality model takes into account that white seabass are highly migratory. It is based, in part, on the white seabass stock assessment. Also, she pointed out that the report concluded that the sampling program is deficient because only a portion of the fish caught by recreational and commercial fishermen are scanned.

“[The model] looks at size of release, the time period of release, where it was released. It incorporates a lot of variables to determine the mortality,” Taylor said.

Shedd isn’t convinced. He also pointed to out-migration. “We don’t know how many of the fish travel north. There has been a head returned from Monterey. It had a tag in it. The last several years we’ve had warmer water,” Shedd said. He thinks the fish may have moved north following their preferred water temperatures. “It’s just another question mark,” he said.

But he saved his biggest question for last. “We know 10 to 20 percent of the fish survive to 100 days old. If they’ve figured out how to eat and stay away from predators, and they look like a wild fish, it doesn’t seem reasonable such a high percentage would die after 100 days. The report assumes they must die because they don’t see the tags,” he said.

While white seabass are in the hatchery and grow-out pens, they are fed pellets. CCA-California volunteers who have invested hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer time to the program can attest to the fact that these hatchery fish are hard-wired to prey on natural forage. “If a smelt ventures his way inside the net, he gets eaten instantly,” Shedd said. The same goes when volunteers drop extra bait into the grow-out pens. “The guys at the grow-out pens laugh at the perspective that the fish can’t figure out how to eat,” he added.

Shedd is adamant that the difference of opinion between Hubbs and the DFW on deformity is a huge problem. “They (the SAC) say that no other hatchery program in the state or country expresses the kind of deformity concerns that the department professes. The rest of aquaculture community takes the opinion that nature takes care of most of the deformities. If a fish has something wrong with it, it doesn’t survive. It has cost so much energy and time in a program that is underfunded. The Department has to figure out a better way to manage the state pathologist or the program will continue to struggle greatly,” he said.

Shedd isn’t ready to give up on the white seabass enhancement program. “The skeptics said we’d never get them to spawn, never get the larva to live. Each step we passed they came up with the next thing. Some of those same critics are writing stories saying that the program is a failure. They take one comment out of a 198-page report,” he said.

In a position paper shared with Western Outdoor News, CCA-California writes about their preferred option moving forward:

“What is needed is a changed focus on white seabass, a better way to identify tagged fish, more funding, and elimination of the inefficiencies and poor leadership at the top around areas such as the deformities issue. Halibut should also be added to the program,” it concludes. The program shouldn’t be eliminated; more needs to be done on the practical side to maximize the returns of hatchery-raised white seabass. Further, halibut were once a co-species in OREHP; the legislation is in place to add them.

“With an increased survivability focus on White Seabass, and the addition of halibut, ORHEP could not only continue to contribute to science, but also actually demonstrate that marine hatcheries can in fact help Mother Nature maintain a healthy resource,” the CCA-California position paper further reads.

Meanwhile, the next 20-year old hatchery-raised white seabass could be out there, waiting for someone like Greg Barnicoat to catch it. Is the program a success? Barnicoat thinks so. "I'd like to see it continue."

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