Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#154: Please Don't Harrass The Bass!

Last week was a real lucky one for me dive-wise.... and in a few other ways that I'll let you guess at. NO, not that... a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell anyway. I will say "it" is becoming a distinct possibility though. Thanks to the generosity of Scuba Luv, I was able to make four dives down at Italian Gardens to film the black sea bass courtship going on there. This is the best known spot on Catalina's leeward side to find these bass behemoths. Although the most I've seen there at one time (and I mean with a single glance, not over the entire dive) was ten, others have seen at least 13.

The black sea bass appear to use select areas for courtship and spawning. I'm not so particular, but then they are far more successful than I am! Italian Gardens is the best spot here but they are also present off the other Channel Islands. Kathy deWet-Oleson has been studying the courtship group off Anacapa Island to the north since 1999. She has seen 35 bass in a single dive there. We are sharing our observations and our video footage from the two islands. The bass are also making a comeback in several locations on the mainland coast as well based on reports from dive buddies and friends there.

It is a tribute to conservation efforts that these bass exist here at all, and are steadily increasing in numbers. As readers of my earlier columns about them know, they were largely fished to local extinction by the 1970's. As far back as 1910, conservationists like Charles F. Holder of Avalon's Tuna Club were calling for protections for this fish. They were the favorite target for anglers before billfish rose to number one status. The commercial fishery for these tasty fish (according to "taste bud witnesses" I know) was halted by the State of California in 1982 and the recreational catch in the following year. Then in 1993, gill netting was removed as a threat to their survival. Many of the fish we are seeing at sites along the island coast are 300-400 pounds or more, indicating they may be individuals 50-75 years old that survived the fishery pressure. They are the primary breeding stock since their large size allows greater egg production.

The comeback has been spectacular and very rewarding for divers, and even passengers on the glassbottom boats on occasion. These are truly amazing and gentle animals. A long encounter with them is awe-inspiring, and I've certainly had my share of them this summer! However, this comeback is not without some continuing threats. Of the black sea bass I've observed around the island, two had spear wounds in their opercula (the protective covering over the sensitive gills), several had fish hooks in their mouths and monofilament line trailing behind them, and many (probably most) others have wounds or scars of uncertain origin.

Fishers using hook and line do not see what species is eyeing and taking their baits (or the divers that may not be aware of their hooks and lines). Most of the hooks and lines I've seen on these bass are from light tackle. I can't imagine anyone other than the most sporting of anglers would intentionally go after a 400 pound black sea bass with a small hook on 6-8 pound test leader. Although it is sad to see these creatures hooked, the wounds are not mortal and the fish will survive... even if the leader gets entangled, they can easily break such flimsy plastic. If an angler actually hooks and lands one, they can't be blamed for the fact that a bass found their bait appealing. However, others on the island have heard chatter on ship-to-ship radios indicating some fishers are bringing in heavy tackle and targeting the bass. The first time I see this, I promise I'll record the incident on video and launch another media attack! The second infraction might deserve a well-placed limpet mine if I can round up my former Toyon student who is high up in the U.S. Navy Seals training program.

Most hook-and-line fishers respect these fish and are not a real threat. I wish I could say the same about those divers who intentionally spear the protected bass. Recently two integrity-challenged morons were arrested for spearing and bringing in a black sea bass in La Jolla. Not only did they take one, they did it in a well-recognized marine reserve that is posted with signs. Fortunately the lifeguards and enforcement personnel were there to take them into custody. What was their punishment? Despite the fact this was a second poaching offense for one of them, they were fined $1,100 each, sentenced to 30 days of community service and several years of probation, and had their diving gear confiscated. If it were up to me, and a good many other divers in SoCal, the punishment would have been a lot stiffer. In fact, I think (taking some "poetic license" here) they deserve to be shot with their own spearguns and I'll volunteer. I won't aim to kill, but then my aim with a speargun isn't very good. I haven't used one since 1975. Keep that in mind, bass poachers!

I have observed a large number of unusual wounds and scars on the heads and bodies of these bass at several dive sites. Watching a number of kids walk through town carrying Hawaiian slings has concerned me. I believe it is illegal to do so, but the law needs to be enforced to be effective. Some of the wounds I am seeing might be consistent with a low power spear like that hitting a bass with a glancing blow. I asked a number of divers and spear fishers with mixed responses... some felt it was very probable, others raised different potential causes.

One UCSB fish biologist thought some of the wounds could be consistent with feeding behavior. Black sea bass were said to stick their heads between rocks to capture lobster (they suck them in like a vacuum cleaner... something we have in common!). Kathy deWet-Oleson concurred with me that it is probably not due to feeding since bass usually feed at twilight when the lobster are coming out of hiding into the open. I am continuing to study these fish and their wounds to see what I can learn, and have been sharing my observations with Kathy and with Dr. Michael Domeier of PIER (the Pfleger Institute for Environmental Research which organized the Guadalupe great white shark experience last December).

There is another potential "threat" that bothers me. Last week I was filming the bass in an area I favor at Italian Gardens. Usually few people bother me, or the bass, there. This time another dive boat appeared and anchored near us. While I was 65 feet under filming one of the bass, four of its divers not only approached the bass but attempted to touch it while I was filming! Probably newbies who weren't aware of proper diver courtesy. I left them with that bass and moved much further away. As I sat filming the next bass, the divers appeared and repeated their behavior. They drove that bass away... while I was filming! This happened at least 6-7 more times. With the Italian Gardens site a very popular dive location for local and mainland boats, I worry about the repeated impact of, and interference by, divers on the bass. Too much human pressure might drive them from their selected courtship site. More dive instructors and boats need to teach their divers proper courtesy towards videographers and, more importantly, the fish.

I want these gentle giants to be around for decades and centuries to come... even if I'm no longer here to enjoy diving with them, maybe my son will! Personally, I would favor the closure of Italian Gardens for all fishing at least during courting and spawning season. This would seem a small sacrifice to ensure as many of the fish survive as possible. And if they keep making more "youngun's," there may be enough some day to allow fishing for them to resume.

© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis" DVD so you can take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Diver approaching bass too closely (later he tried to touch it and scared bass away);
spear wound in operculum of black sea bass; bass with "ripped lips" and scar
due to fishing hook (note fishing line streaming from bass in the background),
fish hook in bass' upper lip.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia