California Fish and Game officials who met in Santa Barbara last Wednesday agreed on the need for action to protect ocean bass species whose populations have collapsed in the last decade in Southern California waters. According to statistics compiled by agency researcher Erica Jarvis, the barred sand bass catch has fallen by 85 percent since 2001. The kelp bass catch has fallen by more than 70 percent since the l980s. The two species constitute two of the biggest recreational fisheries in Southern California.
The cause of the collapse is still in dispute. A study published last fall by Brad Erisman, a researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, pointed to the growth of a sophisticated sports fishing industry in the last 25 years, and to charter boats that target the barred sand bass as it spawns in huge groups in a few locations off the coast. Individual fish will swim as far as 15 miles to join their fellow masses in the summer mating ritual, making it possible for anglers to continue to have success even as overall population numbers of the species decline dramatically.
Michael Sutton, one of two California state Fish and Game Commissioners at the meeting, called for a consideration of a seasonal closure during spawning season to allow the two species to repopulate. “Fishing spawning aggregations is a really dangerous practice,” he said. “If a seasonal closure would alleviate that, we need to consider that. A seasonal closure would have a significant impact on the industry, but so would a ban of fishing these species for several years.”
Jarvis said that the bass fisheries collapsed mostly due to an influx of colder waters since l998, brought on by a vast oceanic phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Over a span of many years, not unlike El Niño and La Niña in the equatorial Pacific, a colossal pool of cold water sloshes back and forth from the North Pacific, altering both the weather and ocean conditions along the coast. “We think this [collapse] has to do with a long-term trend due to the PDO,” she said. “It appears that as though the warmer periods are more favorable to these species than the cool periods.”
Jarvis and other fish biologists at the agency suggested that the agency consider three measures to allow the two bass species – and another, less often fished species, the spotted sand bass – to repopulate. They called for a reduction in the bag limit, which currently allows fishermen to catch ten fish a day; an increase in the size limit, to thirteen inches or larger, to ensure that younger fish will have more time to reproduce; and the possibility of a seasonal closure of two weeks or more. The commission may also choose to consider restrictions on where charter boats may fish during the season.
Commissioner Richard Rogers questioned the Scripps study for suggesting that recreation fishing was the primary cause of the fisheries collapse. “The ocean is immensely complex,” he said. “It’s easy to point at fishing effort because it’s far easier to see and document than other factors.”
In the end, the two commissioners, representatives of environmental groups, and many anglers in the audience supported the staff’s call for new restrictions. The recommendation will go to the full commission next month. Putting together a new “regulatory package” is expected to take about a year.