White Seabass hatchery a failure

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$40 Million Later, Effort to Boost California's White Seabass Stocks Shows Little Success
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Staff at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute sluice juvenile white seabass into a cage at Santa Catalina Island, in Southern California, where they grow before being released into the ocean. Thirty-five years ago, the state launched the program to bolster waning white seabass numbers. Now the first scientific assessment of the program finds it had a stunningly low success rate. ( Mike Shane/Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute)
Back in 1983, it seemed like a good idea.

Local populations of California white seabass — a favorite among recreational and commercial fishermen, prized for its mild, tender, flaky white flesh — were declining. While a fishery management plan didn't exist back then, sports fishermen had noticed a decline in their catches and asked officials for help. State lawmakers then reached out to the marine biologists at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego to see if they could boost stocks by trying something unusual — raising the fish in a hatchery and releasing them into the sea.

It wasn't an entirely new idea. Americans have been attempting to raise fish in hatcheries in some form or another for at least 150 years. But this would be the first time scientists would try it with white seabass, launching a program that would become a model for other states hoping to bolster waning populations of wild fish — a process known as marine enhancement.

But as is often the case, things weren't so simple.

Some 35 years and nearly $40 million later, the future of the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (as it's formally called) is in jeopardy: The first formal scientific evaluation has concluded that the program had increased white seabass populations by less than 1 percent — a stunningly low success rate. Compare that to Alaska's salmon hatchery program, which typically accounts for one-third of the state's total harvest.

It turns out that if you're going to enhance stocks using a hatchery, species matters, and white seabass may not have been the best starting point. The hatchery-grown seabass suffered from high mortality rates within the first few months of being released into the wild. Even with tiny tags embedded in their heads, tracking them in the open ocean proved difficult. Of the more than 2 million fish that have been released since the program's start, only 199 adult and just over 1,770 juvenile white seabass have been recaptured as of 2016.

Unlike salmon, which are hardwired to return to their original spawning grounds (or hatchery stream), making them easy to count, white seabass roam without returning. And over the years, there were plenty of significant challenges to overcome: developing broodstock; caring for fish in their most sensitive larval stages; determining when and how to successfully release young fish into the wild; figuring out the best temperatures and feed mix to produce thriving fish; and trying to understand why exactly the breeding program continued to see malformed fish — a factor that also likely contributed to low survival numbers.

But in 1983, the idea to grow and release white seabass was a bold one. Even to this day, the program is considered a pioneer of marine enhancement efforts. It currently falls under the authority of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but much of the work and expertise come from researchers at Hubbs.

"Should we have started the project with a different fish? It's something we talk about quite a bit," says Mark Drawbridge, a senior research scientist at the institute, who joined the program in 1989. "I think halibut [a fish that was considered in the program's early stages] would have been easier in a lot of ways. But the halibut research was discontinued because there wasn't enough funding to go around."

An enhancement program that garners less than a 1 percent bump in white seabass stocks might easily be dismissed as a failure. But officials from state and federal governments, as well as researchers from California Sea Grant and the science advisory committee that performed the evaluation, all say not so fast.

"Was the ultimate goal scientific knowledge? No, it was to enhance the wild populations. But there's a lot of [scientific] value from what we gained, even if we didn't reach that ultimate goal," says Kathryn Johnson, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Michael Rust, a science adviser for NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture, says information gained from the program is in some ways as valuable as the fish.

"With stock enhancement programs, you have the opportunity to tag a whole group of fish, put them in the ecosystem, see where they go, what they eat and how they grow at different temperatures. The value is in the information you get. From NOAA's perspective, the enhancement is a bonus," says Rust.

While marine enhancement programs may not capture the public's attention or media spotlight in the way that oyster and salmon farming do, there are several programs in operation around the country. Alaska's salmon fishery enhancement program might be the best known, but there are also marine enhancement programs in Texas, Florida and South Carolina hatching and releasing economically important species like red drum, snook, spotted sea trout, southern flounder and cobia. The Texas red drum marine enhancement program, for example, is considered a success, with return rates that vary from just 0.2 percent to 17 percent, depending on the bay where samples were taken, the year and the season.

But measuring success can be tricky, when perhaps the more pointed question should be: Do marine enhancement programs actually do anything to fix the underlying problem of why a stock needs a boost in the first place? In the case of white seabass, the answer is no. A 2016 stock assessment of California white seabass showed stocks are currently considered depleted.

Kai Lorenzen, a professor of integrative fisheries science at the University of Florida, says there's been a shift in thinking about the way marine enhancement programs might best be used.

"When the white seabass program was conceived, there was the idea [that] enhancing a fishery would be a good thing as long as you applied careful genetic management. But since then, our understanding of enhancement programs has evolved," he says.

Using these programs to sustain or rebuild a very small population that would be lost would be a good use, he says. Stocking fish to be recaptured rather than to enhance the natural population — like Alaska's program — could also be considered a good use. And, as climate change brings with it changes in ocean conditions, enhancement programs might become a critical tool for fisheries managers, especially for species that are sensitive to water temperature changes in their early lives.

But according to some of Lorenzen's research, many marine enhancement programs simply fail to deliver.

"Having looked at many, maybe one-third of enhancement [programs] would be successful on some criteria," he says.

The findings in the new report will likely prompt other states to reassess their own marine enhancement efforts.

Whether California will decide to end its program and close the hatchery or move forward with a different species is yet to be decided. The state's Department of Fish and Wildlife is planning to hold a set of regional public meetings in the coming months to gather input.

That input — from scientists, fishermen and the public — will be critical to the future of marine enhancement programs, says Theresa Sinicrope Talley, a coastal specialist with California Sea Grant who led the review of the seabass program.

"Whether enhancement programs like this are considered a success or not, depends on the goals — what the state and society decide they really want out of these programs," she says.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a journalist based in San Diego who covers food policy and sustainability issues.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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hucklongfin

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Getting rid of inshore gill nets probably helped the population recover more than the breeding program. There’s probably only at best a 1% survival of wild hatched fish anyway so the recovery rate of hatchery fish is probably what you should expect so I wouldn’t call the hatchery program a failure.
 
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Buttchaser

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swami 805

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Success or failure, still worth the effort. One of those deals that seemed like it should help, maybe it is working and just too difficult to gauge.
Loss of breeding habitat plays a big role as does over fishing. There's no simple answers but nothing will improve without making an effort
 
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hilltop

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Well.....I rear and release Rainbows tri-annually..........and as the real deal, there are plenty of WSB. They no show often, but they are there.
 
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makairaa

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Hatchery sea bass and salmon is a bad comparison.
Sea bass don't spawn in a river.
Numbers sound right. Think of how many aren't caught. And how many heads aren't turned in.
Salmon also only live 2 to 5 years and will return to where they were released unlike seabass. So definitely a bad comparison.
 
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Carl

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    Hatchery sea bass and salmon is a bad comparison.
    Sea bass don't spawn in a river.
    Numbers sound right. Think of how many aren't caught. And how many heads aren't turned in.
    Regardless, the ratio of turned in heads being hatchery fish is the telling number.
     
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    Azarkon

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    The population decline likely has to do with the warm water, same reason lingcod are on the decline in Southern California. Maybe this year will be different due to all the wind but last few years were a trade off: tuna for cold water species, not much you can do.
     
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    Saba Slayer

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    "Numbers sound right. Think of how many aren't caught. And how many heads aren't turned in."
    "Of the more than 2 million fish that have been released since the program's start, only 199 adult...white seabass had been recaptured as of 2016..."
    IMHO the lack of incentive for both commercial and recreational fishermen has been a big factor in the small number of heads that are turned in...and this small number of heads that are turned in makes it really tough to see if this program is working. I have a friend that is an excellent WSB kayak fisherman and he regularly catches fish but yet he refuses to turn in a head as his wife loves to make soup out of them. There is nothing I can do to convince him to turn a head in...
    There is no reason a commercial guy will save a trash can full of heads or a recreational guy will wrestle with his Asian or Latino wife to keep that head from becoming soup.
    We need to set up an incentive program like UA used to have...where we can reward the commercial or recreational fisherman's turn in of heads for scanning.
    Another problem with the wire tag Hubbs uses in the WSB heads is that it requires a very expensive scanner to find it. A cheaper scanner that every boat could have on it would be great or some way to externally mark the WSB for easy identification would really help to increase the number of marked fish caught.

    P40100212.JPG


    "Part of that 40 millions should have gone to hire more fish and game wardens to stop the land based poachers."
    The Salt Water Stamp that supports the WSB hatchery program is money that the state legislature has earmarked only for this program so all funds must be spent there.
    Bottom line is...It's OUR program (WE PAY FOR IT)...we need to own it and make it what we want and tell the DFW...
    There are two WSB meetings at the Los Alamitos DFW office this week...Tuesday is an ORHEP advisory committee meeting (I'm the alternate chair for John Reardon) and I expect some heated discussion at this first meeting since the Science Assessment released it's findings.
    Friday we meet again to discuss the DFW's Fishery Management Plan for White Seabass.
    There is a possibility that we may replace the WSB with Halibut or include Halibut along with the WSB in the hatchery program.
    IMHO I feel that Halibut will stick around better than the migratory WSB which have been chasing the bait in our northern parts of the state where there is no program for head returns.
    I hope some of this info helps...and more folks get involved in OUR program.
    PM me if you would like to volunteer at a WSB grow-out near you. We have fish in all our harbors from San Diego to Oxnard.
    Jim / Saba Slayer
     
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    swami 805

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    Kudos to you for taking the time and making the effort.
    So many factors involved that making any kind of accurate assesment of success or failure is nearly impossible. Hope they continue the program.
     
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    michael e. bingham

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    What about the guys who get a commerical license in order to kill more fish when there spawning ..? Stright bull shit they have full time jobs and I kniw guys who have killed 40 spawners in one night , these fish are our breeder stock and you can't tell me it dosent hurt the fishery , guys like us who are happy to catch one , this needs to be regulated better , I have a house in puerto san isidro in baja and locals gillnet white seabass and we have far more caught gish in our group than fish in LJ kelp
     
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    Tom Honaker

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    How many were turned in last year? I've never heard a number.
    Getting accurate science on seabass is hard at best. I've twice taken fish to the Long Beach fish and game off shoreline drive. They had spaghetti tags implanted in the backs of them. They had coded numbers that had all the data involving them. They even said where to take them ( which I did) there was a small reward for bringing the tag in. Not a single person there knew anything about it! I even gave them the tags showing them that they were the ones requesting that data! I just walked out dismayed about the lack of comprehension. Im just one fisherman, how many others have experienced that same situation? Lost science, lost data!
     
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    UnBelievable

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    Perspective....... Only 1 Percent of turtles return to lay eggs for the future generations. Using the numbers and being as successful as Mother Nature is HUGE. I turn in every head. Truth be told not many over the years. Next one I will try to get the info and report back here. Seems like the news of the day and all the polls.......NO ONE ASKED ME OR ANYONE I KNOW. There are always those whom refer to the math of money and expect some kind of new math. Recently had a discussion with the pothole in the road in front of my home. The politicians diverted the money to give undocumented imagants more rights than my fellow Americans whom pay taxes. Just saying if it were up to Mr. Bonehead Brown more undocumented Democratic voters and less White Seabass would be just fine. Please excuse my rant, I need therapy.
     
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    Done_Deal

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    There is a possibility that we may replace the WSB with Halibut or include Halibut along with the WSB in the hatchery program.

    In 1986 I created and operated the Santa Monica Bay Halibut Derby (SMBHD) for the purpose of funding fishing related charities. The two primary charities were the SMBHD Youth Fishing Program (which was 100% funded by the SMBHD) and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum Halibut Hatchery Program. Both of these programs proved highly successful. The SMBHD Youth Fishing Program concept has been copied in most So. California harbors.


    The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum Halibut Hatchery Program developed the science needed to create a successful hatchery operation. In the U.S prior to this program there was no science available to even allow the scientists to differentiate larval flatfish by species. By the end of the program they had released over 5 million tiny (3/4” to 1”) into various Southern California locations.


    The hatchery program was primarily funded by the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. The SMBHD was the single largest source of private funding. I do not know why the halibut hatchery program was discontinued, likely just had to do with reallocation of funding. The released halibut were “tagged” via a chemical process that stained their bones but I do not recall any data on returns. I would think that any data relative to the project would be in the possession of the Natural History Museum.
     
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    Saba Slayer

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    OREHP Meeting 4/10
    Kinda small meeting considering the recent Science review...Dallas Weaver, Bill Shedd, John Riordan, one commercial guy, myself, and a half a dozen folks on the conference call along with the DFW reps.
    Mark from Hubbs gave some info on what's happening at Mission Bay and Carlsbad and some numbers...
    114,320 released fish in 2017
    40,000 tagged and ready in Carlsbad
    31,000 in growouts along the coast
    At Carlsbad they've downsized the brood-stock tanks from 4 to 3 and established one tank for the young new breeders...we have about 50 fish that are 20 years old so Hubbs is looking forward to doing some brood-stock gathering this year to get some new blood in the tank.
    He discussed WSB larval studies, Walling behavior (bumping into the tank walls), Degassing systems (to get rid of the google eye that sometimes effects the fish) and some parallel Halibut research (Broodstock, Culture, Genetics, Lab Studies and a pilot release) Halibut stuff funded with the money from the Dick Laub grant that CCA helped establish.
    One interesting fact...cultured Halibut do not bury well in the sand...so perhaps some studies on raising with a sand bottom might be needed. There has been lots of work done with flounder in Japan so there is a lot of info available out there in academia.
    Mike from Hubbs was up next and he gave lots of numbers I won't bore you with about the gill net sampling and some studies in tag retention. He also talked about otolith sampling to gather info on the WSB. They have a couple of different methods involving cutting and counting the "rings" or grinding into powder and reading chemical markers and DNA. Otolith microchemistry is very expensive...!
    Mark Okihiro (the Senior DFW Fish Pathologist) was up next and he said there was a small outbreak with the Oxnard fish but it was under control...he then proceeded to trash the program...IMHO he has never been a supporter of the DFW's WSB program. As long as I've been in the WSB meetings he has never offered a positive outlook or positive advise. I don't get it...it's the Departments program...you'd think they'd put someone in there that supported their own program.
    Valerie the project manager from the DFW was up last and she talked about the budget and the funding which as usual is down...(one common comment from the Science Advisory Committee was about the lack of funding for the various aspects of the project).
    She will be informing the DFG Commission on the SAC review and the upcoming public meetings at the next commission meeting in Ventura.
    She also informed us that the DFW is contracting with Cal Sea Grant to put together these 3 meetings to inform the public and gather information on what the fishing community would like from the program and it's future. The meetings will be held in Santa Barbara/Ventura, LA/OC, and SD.
    The Department says that they are looking for public input on the future direction of the WSB program...we pay for the majority of the funding with our saltwater stamp and the legislature has determined that the funds should stay in the hatchery program unless WE the FISHERMEN want to change it.
    PLEASE ATTEND THESE MEETINGS TO HELP DETERMINE THE FUTURE DIRECTION OF THE WSB and The Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP).
    We ended the meeting with a discussion on the scientific review and WE AGREED TO DISAGREE...we did agree to have a special OREHP advisory panel meeting again in June after the public meetings with the chair of the scientific review committee in attendance to get some answers and hash out a few more differences.

    A WSB Fishery Management Plan meeting is this Friday with the DFW and it should be interesting to see the state of our WSB and any new reg changes that might be brewing...
     
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    Blackfish

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    Maybe if they would have used that $40 million over the last 35 years to buy out ALL of the gillnetters off our coast, the over all improvement to the entire inshore/offshore species, besides just the WSB and Halibut, would have benefited???
     
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