After $40 million, California fish hatchery shows little success

After spending $40 million over 35 years, a California plan to restore wild stocks of white seabass has failed to produce much in the way of results, according to a study released this week. “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,” Clare Leschin-Hoar reports in FERN’s latest story, with NPR’s The Salt.

The program began in 1983, when “California white seabass, a favorite among recreational and commercial fishermen, prized for its mild, tender, flaky white flesh, were declining,” the story says. “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.”

And that’s what they have done ever since. But the scientists concluded that white seabass might have been a poor choice for a hatchery fish. “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,” Leschin-Hoar writes.

“Should we have started the project with a different fish? It’s something we talk about quite a bit,” Mark Drawbridge, a senior research scientist at the Institute, says in the story. Many other species, including Alaskan salmon, and red drum in Texas, have fared far better.