Southern California White Seabass
By Ron Ballanti
As an aspiring Southern California saltwater angler in the 1970s and ’80s, I grew up at a time when white seabass were almost mythical creatures — not unlike unicorns with fins. I remember watching my brother — who worked as a deckhand — catch his first seabass in 1972. An impressionable 12-year-old with a slight case of hero worship, I vowed to catch one of my own. It took me 30 years.
Fast-forward to summer 2010, when the one hot ticket in a lackluster cool-water season was a sustained white seabass bite that continued at various locations throughout the spring and summer. The highlight: a bite along the Orange County/San Diego coast, where flotillas of private boaters landed personal-best-size croakers of 40 to 50 pounds.
So how did white seabass go from magical mystery fish to the target of a robust recreational fishery? Several actions caused the transition, the most significant of which was California’s passage of Proposition 132 in the early 1990s. The regulations went into effect in 1994, banning commercial gill and trammel nets within three miles of the coast and one mile of the islands.
Putting this issue on the ballot and pushing its passage became the driving force for the creation of the United Anglers of Southern California (www.unitedanglers.com). Prop 132 remains one of the group’s key achievements.
The inshore nets had proved highly effective at catching white seabass, particularly when the fish gathered in large schools to spawn. Decades of pounding those populations took a toll reflected in commercial and recreational catches.
In 1980 and ’81, the commercial catch collapsed to about 10 percent of historical levels. The state recreational catch from party boats dropped from a 1949 high of 64,000 fish to just 284 in 1978. That historic low aside, recreational-party-boat catches averaged around 1,400 fish annually between 1980 and 1991, or only 2 percent of the 1949 peak, according to an assessment by university scientists and the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute published in 2007 in the journal Fisheries Research.
Commercial fishermen still catch seabass using a variety of methods, including hook and line, and offshore drift and set nets. With those gear restrictions, commercial catches of adult seabass began to grow in 1996 from about 28 metric tons to more than 220 metric tons in 2002, the assessment states. They’ve fluctuated since, but at levels well above the 1980s collapse.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game White Seabass Fishery Management Plan published in 2009, commercial landings reached 653,086 pounds (roughly 296 metric tons) for the 2007-2008 season — a 73 percent increase over the previous five-season average.
Recreational seabass catches can’t be as accurately estimated, because the fishery involves minimally sampled private boats. In several years, over the past decade, recreational catch estimates have exceeded commercial landings.
Recreational anglers must abide by a 28-inch minimum size with a limit of one fish per day south of Point Conception from March 15 through June 15 (prime spawning season), and a three-fish-per-day limit the rest of the year. Some angling conservationists lean toward extending the one-fish limit across the entire year and range to further protect the huge spawners.
An Innovative Hatchery Program
The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, working with United Anglers of Southern California and numerous volunteers, has spawned, raised and released more than 1.8 million juvenile white seabass into Southern California waters. These fish begin life in a state-of-the-art hatchery in Carlsbad, California, before transfer to a series of grow-out pens between Santa Barbara and San Diego. When they reach approximately 10 inches in length, they’re released.
Each fish bears a microscopic coded-wire cheek tag; anglers are encouraged to save seabass heads for scanning. Freezers are located at sport-fishing landings and other locations across the region. A list of drop-off locations is available at hswri.org.
Scanned tags from sport and commercially caught fish have shown unexpected migrations. One fish released off Mission Bay was caught 200 miles away, off the Northern Channel Islands. Others have been recovered in offshore drift nets on the Tanner and Cortes banks, 100 miles off San Diego.
About the Author: Southern California salt- and freshwater angler Ron Ballanti frequently contributes to leading fishing magazines and websites, and operates a marketing business in the marine industry.