Comeback of the Black Sea Bass

By Eric Hanauer

The writer has been observing the fisheries of Southern California for nearly 30 years. In that time, the supply has dropped off to a menacing extent, due to lack of laws, lack of protection and over-fishing where fishes should be protected.

-Dr. Charles F. Holder, Throop College of Technology (now Cal Tech), 1914.

Most reports about the environment these days are filled with gloom and doom. The endangered species list keeps expanding, while veteran divers reminisce about the good old days when big fishes, abalones and other critters were plentiful. But occasionally a success story breaks through, lending a small degree of hope that we haven't yet damaged our ecosystem beyond repair. California's Black Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas, is a case in point. Hunted nearly to extinction, fishing for these gigantic animals was banned in 1982, both commercial and sport. Now they're coming back. Not in the sizes and numbers of years gone by; that will take more time because these slow-growing giants live about as long as humans. It may be a few generations before the 500-pounders return, but if we continue to leave them alone, today's 200-pound youngsters may have a chance to get there.

Until recently, seeing a Black Sea Bass underwater was a rare occurrence. In 30 years of California diving I had seen only two, and one was a juvenile. But last summer at Santa Barbara Island I was surrounded by a group of about 15, ranging in length from three to six feet. I'm not sure of the exact numbers because after nine I stopped counting and began shooting photographs.

Skipper Kenny Hess of the Encore told us he had spotted a Black Sea Bass at the bow while anchoring the boat. Most of the divers onboard immediately jumped into the water, but I had to change lenses, ports and film to take advantage of the opportunity. By the time everything was set up, nearly 30 minutes had passed, and I figured all the commotion had probably spooked the fish. Swimming slowly through the kelp at 40 feet, I scanned in all directions without any real hope of seeing anything. Suddenly out of the corner of my mask, the first big fish appeared. It was silvery, with black spots, just like the one in the kelp forest tank at Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Birch Aquarium.

The big fish kept a wary distance of around 20 feet, but instead of swimming away from me it cruised in a wide circle. I took one "hope" shot just to prove I'd seen it, then slowly followed. For a moment I lost sight, then suddenly another and another and yet another appeared. The circling continued for about five minutes while I tried to blend into the kelp, afraid of scaring them away and hoping they'd decide to come close enough for good photography. Then slowly they changed direction, and I followed at a respectful distance, out of the kelp into an area of bare rock covered with sea urchins.

At this point I was ecstatic, having doubled my lifetime sightings of Black Sea Bass. If they left now, I'd still be thrilled. But waiting there in the urchin barren were even more of the same, a veritable congregation of Black Sea Bass.

Whether it's sports or diving, when you're having a peak experience time seems to expand and everything happens in slow motion. So I have no idea how long the encounter lasted. As they moved toward me one by one, all I thought about was composition and exposure, bracketing my shots to avoid burning out the silvery sheen of their scales. When a fish filled the frame at the widest zoom setting on the final shot of the roll, I knew I'd nailed it, but still wished there were another 36 exposures. Finally I had a chance to relax and appreciate what was going on. For an experienced diver, being in the water with something bigger than a human is the ultimate thrill. The bulk, strength and mass of these giants was overwhelming.

Finally appearing to tire of me, they slowly moved on and faded into deeper water. Upon returning to the boat, I found that no other diver had seen even a single Black Sea Bass.

What were they doing there? There have been reports of spawning aggregations along rocky bottoms, just like this one. Primary spawning season is June through September, so the timing was right. Wildlife cinematographer Bill McDonald tells of one recent incident when a group of Black Sea Bass chased one another's tails in a circular motion. If a diver approached, another fish would move in behind the human, as if offering protection.

According to Fish and Game biologist Steven J. Crooke, spawning aggregations can stay together for one to two months. Sexually mature fishes are at least 7 to 11 years old and weigh between 50 and 60 pounds. A few of the fishes I saw were barely three feet long, the largest about six feet, weighing well over 200 pounds. There was no obvious evidence of mating, unless the circling is a form of foreplay.

Little is known about Black Sea Bass biology because an animal so rare and elusive is difficult to study. Ranging from Humboldt Bay to the tip of Baja California and the northern Sea of Cortez, hatchlings spend up to five months in plankton before setting out. By the end of two years the fish is just more than a foot long and has outgrown predators like Sand Bass. If it escapes sharks, sea lions and gill nets, it grows to three feet, 50 pounds, at the end of 10 years. The largest recorded specimen was taken off Anacapa Island in 1968, measuring more than seven feet long and weighing 563 pounds. Its estimated age was 90 to 100 years old.

Encounters like mine, although still uncommon, are being reported with more frequency. Scattered stories are coming in from Anacapa, Catalina, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz Islands, as well as locations on the mainland. They aren't prevalent enough to make anyone blase, but after a virtual absence of nearly 20 years, divers are once again seeing California's largest bony fish.

The first time I saw a Black Sea Bass underwater, it looked like a Volkswagen. This was the late 1970s, near the low ebb of their population. Like a ghostly apparition it suddenly materialized out of the gloom in murky water off Santa Cruz Island. I yelled into my regulator, but my buddy never turned around and missed the entire encounter. The fish couldn't have been there more than 20 seconds and remained on the edge of visibility. It knew humans were something to be avoided and, with no sign of agitation or panic, continued on its way, quickly disappearing into the shadow. My excitement over the sighting was tempered with sadness, realizing that I'd probably never see another one.

Reports from the early 1900s indicate that fishermen could count on catching a Black Sea Bass nearly every day. Pressure peaked in the late 1960s and early '70s, when long-range sportfishing boats were featuring "Black Sea Bass specials" to Mexico. On occasion they would land 50 to 100 fish per trip until local stocks were depleted, and trips there were no longer worthwhile.

In 1982, the California State Legislature banned commercial fishing for Black Sea Bass, and a year later the Fish and Game Department eliminated sport fishing. However, commercial fishermen were still allowed one fish per trip if caught incidentally in gill or trammel nets. Young fish in the 30- to 60-pound range were especially vulnerable. The 1993 ban on gill nets off the coast took care of that exception. Since then, sport fishermen have been reporting increasing catch and release incidents.

The comeback of the Black Sea Bass is a reprieve for them and an encouraging sign for us. Some biologists have proposed setting aside a few areas as marine refuges. The goal is to preserve large areas where all species, including threatened ones, can grow and reproduce without human impact.

Sometimes the odds and the futility of it all can be overwhelming. That's why the comeback of the Black Sea Bass is significant. It shows that by protecting what we have left, perhaps other vanishing species can also turn back the rising tide of extinction.