Fifteen thousand juvenile white sea bass were delivered Wednesday morning to a floating pen located east of Stearns Wharf. Santa Barbara Sea — a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the area’s fisheries — receives a delivery of 15,000 to 20,000 white sea bass each year as part of its White Sea bass Project, an effort developed in conjunction with Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP).
Former Santa Barbara mayor Marty Blum — supporter of the program since 2002 — went out for the first time to assist in the delivery of the fish. “This is a great program,” Blum said. “People complain that the number of fish is down. This [program] is positive and can help everyone.”
Santa Barbara Sea — incorporated in 1981 — raises white sea bass beginning in the spring of each year for about four to six months until the fish are released into the wild, said Joe Carrillo, president of Santa Barbara Sea. Because this year’s July 24 delivery was later than previous years’, the fish will be kept until the end of September, Santa Barbara Sea spokesperson Amanda Petter explained.
A team of approximately 30 volunteers assists in the daily morning and afternoon feedings. OREHP supplies both the white sea bass and the fish meal, and other costs are made up by Santa Barbara Sea through fundraising, Carrillo said. Last year the program received 17,000 white sea bass. The fish arrive as fingerlings, measuring between three and four inches long.
A chip that gathers information on its diet, movement, growth, and survival rate is implanted near the eye of each white sea bass to determine the program’s effectiveness, according to Petter. The chip is part of a statewide initiative launched by Hubbs-SeaWorld Institute that advises fishermen to save the heads of white sea bass and return them to a locally designated drop-off location.
“The recapture rate is disproportionately high in Santa Barbara,” Carrillo said. “They’ve been caught in Catalina, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa [Island].” Carrillo attributes the high survival and recovery rate of the white sea bass to the health of the fish. Over 40 fish have been recaptured since the program’s first big release in 1983, Carrillo said.
“White sea bass are sexually viable at around 20 to 25 inches,” Carrillo said. “The fish we caught were around 28 inches, indicating that they’ve been able to spawn a few seasons.”
White sea bass can live as long as 30 to 40 years and can weigh over 80 pounds, according to Carrillo. Three of the fish released in 1983 were recaptured two years ago, Carrillo said.
Each fingerling is approximately 20 grams and seven months old, said Eric Pedersen, director of Pacifico Aquaculture. The company — based in Ensenada, Mexico — picked up the fingerlings from a hatchery in Oceanside before reaching Santa Barbara. The company is in its second year working with Santa Barbara Sea. The white sea bass are contained in bait wells on the boat and require a diver to bring up the fish in a net. The fish are then transported in the net to the floating pen — which measures 20 by 20 feet and is approximately 10 feet deep.
Santa Barbara Sea aims to increase public awareness of the White Sea Bass Project through education at local schools, Petter said. The volunteer-based nonprofit works with other local organizations in restoring coral reefs and fundraising for similar environmental projects.