Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#291: A Pretty "Cheeky" Fish

I'm writing this before getting ready to head out on Scuba Luv's King Neptune for another great day of diving. Today will be a special one, as I will reach a milestone I've never reached before in the five decades I've been diving. My second dive will be the 2,000th dive of the decade 2,000. I've never reached that level, or even close to it, in any previous one. Of course in the past I actually held full-time jobs, although some involved SCUBA diving as part of them.

Today, I'm going to write about a popular fish species that I am eminently unqualified to talk about. There are dozens of folks here in Avalon who could tell you much more about this marine critter than I can. I'm speaking of the guys (and gals) who fish for the elusive white sea bass. Assuming they are lucky, these people have had far more experience with this finny friend. Previously mine was largely limited to watching fishers drag the heavy beasts up our streets. Heck, I don't remember even tasting one of them... until Captain Mike made us some sashimi on the King Neptune recently!

So what triggered me to write about the white sea bass? In all my dives in our waters dating back to August 24, 1969, I had not seen a white sea bass underwater until a recent dive at Torqua Springs. On that dive I became enamored of them, and now better understand why our local fishers like them so much. Don't worry ladies, I'm not switching my affections in that way. However, now that I've seen one underwater... and on SCUBA yet... I've become intrigued. It is interesting to note that I've read more accounts of SCUBA divers seeing this species recently than I remember in any previous year. Maybe the white sea bass are getting as hard-of-hearing as I am!

I was off-gassing in the shallows at that dive site, looking for subjects to film in about 12-15 feet of water. I looked over at a small school of jack mackerel that was behaving oddly. Within seconds a large fish head appeared from behind the school. I had no idea what it was at first. Then it turned sideways, and presented the unmistakable image of a white sea bass. Unfortunately it quickly swam off before I could turn my video camera on. Despite the fact I took no images, it is indelibly seared in my feeble gray matter. How very, very cool.

Now the white sea bass is not actually a member of the sea bass family. It belongs with the croakers as almost all fishers know. They say that if you listen underwater, or drop a microphone down there, you can hear the males. Of course I've been diving for many decades so I'm practically deaf underwater. I find it interesting that these croakers are called "sea bass." It reminds me of another very tasty fish, the Patagonian toothfish, that I used to love to eat before I realized how ecologically damaging that fishery was. For those of you who don't recognize it by its real name, I'm referring to the Chilean "sea bass."

During our Flying Fish Festival I got to see juvenile white sea bass about 10" long. They were a silvery color with very dark bars along the sides. The adults are gray-blue, bronze or almost yellow in color. The one I saw had faint bars on its lateral surface (side). I remember the first time I thought I saw one. I was house sitting for the Offields one summer and walked into Chase's bedroom. There, on top of the blankets on his bed, was a white sea bass! It turned out to be one of the exceptional wood carvings done by former Avalon resident Hank George. Even though I'm a biologist, it sure fooled me. Hmm, during that same summer I ended up watering all of Wendy's potted silk flowers... some biologist I am!

The different life stages of the white sea bass occupy different habitats. The very young (2-4") swim in the protection of drifting algae beyond the surf line. Older juveniles enter bays and other shallow coastal waters, and usually school. Adults like the one I observed frequent our kelp forests and rocky reefs, and may be seen individually (like the one I observed) or in schools. Adults reach lengths of five feet and are believed to survive for at least 20 years. At this stage they may weigh 95 pounds or more. The one I saw was about 3 to 3 1/2 feet, which would make it 8-12 years old. To fuel their growth, these fish eat sardines, mackerel, anchovies and squid.

For about 50% of the population, sexual maturity is reached at 24" in males and 28" in females. They spawn from April through August with a peak in May and June. Kind of sad that they peak only once a year. Footage shot by Terry Maas shows several unbanded individuals chasing after a single fish with dark bands, suggesting the females may exhibit the banding during reproduction. Spawning usually involves several males and a single female, the reverse procedure of the polygamous sect in Texas but quite similar to a Saturday night at the Chi Chi Club. It is said to peak during the first two hours following sunset, so they seem to prefer to do "it" in the dark.

White sea bass have been observed from Alaska to southern Baja and in the northern Sea of Cortez. About 1900 the commercial fishery for them was centered in San Francisco. Currently they are primarily found south of Pt. Conception. The commercial fishery is now done using drift or set gillnets. Proposition 132 passed in 1992 banned the use of gillnets closer than 3 miles off the mainland and 1 mile off Catalina. The catch by both commercial and recreational fishers has declined over the last half century, but recreational fishers are seeing an upswing in recent years. My free-diving spearfisher friends see them here with some frequency, but it is relatively rare for a SCUBA diver to encounter them. Dr. Milton Love suggests this is due to their well-developed hearing. Maybe I'll get certified on a rebreather to have more experiences with and film these magnificent fish.

Cat Harbor is the site of two white sea bass rearing pens. The Catalina Sea Bass Fund and the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI) are actively and cooperatively raising small sea bass to be released in our waters. HSWRI first released fish in 1986. In 1995 their hatchery in Carlsbad became operational, funded both by private donations and as a mitigation requirement for utilities including Edison International (San Onofre) and San Diego Gas & Electric. The hatchery can produce about 350,000 juvenile fish each year. These are sent to holding pens including the two here to be fed. They are then released at a size of about 8-10 inches. The released fish may move distances of up to 200 miles. We don't seem to know where they go in winter... warmer waters I hope!

As most fishers know, tags are placed internally in the fish's cheeks and HSWRI requests that the heads of all caught fish be turned in at any one of a number of drop-off locations that can be found on their website ( The Catalina Seabass Fund is also placing archival tags on fish in the 28-32 pound range. There is a reward for returning these tags (see for further information). The heads of white sea bass can be returned to the Avalon Seafood Market at the end of the green Pleasure Pier. Please include information about the fish's weight, length and where it was caught to assist in this study.

© 2008 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass," "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" or the new "Sharks and Rays of Southern California" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Having not reacted in time to film the white sea bass I saw underwater, here are some images
of two that Capt. Mike of the King Neptune caught.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia