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Management and History of the White Seabass Fishery

The white seabass is an economically important species that has historically been targeted by commercial and recreational fisheries throughout their functional range, from Northern California to Magdalena Bay, along with an isolated population in the Northern Sea of Cortez  (CDFG, 2002). Fishery landings reached historically low levels in the early 1980s due largely to sustained levels of over-fishing in the latter half of the century (Vojkovich and Reed, 1983). The California coastal gillnet fishery was extremely effective at harvesting white seabass, especially when fish aggregated near-shore to spawn during the spring and summer months.  The gillnet fishery is now prohibited from setting gear within state waters (<3 miles from the coast and <1 mile off of the Channel Islands) and restricted from fishing  during a portion of the spawning season, from March 15 to June 15 (in southern California).   

The Marine Life Management Act (MLMA) of 1998 and the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999 were also significant in the management of white seabass. Under the MLPA, the California Department of Fish and Game is mandated to develop a coastal network of marine protected areas to manage marine resources at an ecological level. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are designed to preserve the critical habitat and spawning populations of marine organisms and to serve as larval sources for surrounding areas.

Recreational landings have increased dramatically in recent years indicating a rebuilding stock. This resurgence has spurred an increase in fishing effort directed at white seabass, making this species a common target of recreational anglers in the spring. Recreational fisheries also target white seabass spawning aggregations, however recreational harvest is more difficult to accurately assess.  Recreational fishermen are currently limited to one fish over 28 inches per person per day between March 15 and June 15, while three white seabass can be kept per day the remainder of the year. The overall catch-and-release mortality rate of juvenile white seabass has been estimated at 10%, however; this rate is dependent upon the location of hook damage and is increased when deeply embedded hooks are removed (Aalbers et al, 2004).

White seabass are also a prized target species for spearfishers throughout California. The acute hearing capability of white seabass compels freedivers to hunt silently on a breath hold for a chance of encountering a trophy fish. Experienced freedivers have grown accustomed to listening intently for the low-frequency sounds produced by white seabass to increase the likelihood of locating their elusive target.  Over the past five years spearfishing for white seabass has grown considerably, with the number of divers frequently outnumbering traditional fishers in the early months of the fishery.

Based on roughly equivelant rates of tag recoveries (1/3 gillnet, 1/3 commercial hook and line, 1/3 recreational) during PIER tagging studies, it is evident that all sectors of the fishery (recreational and commercial) rely heavily on this valuable commodity. Thus, all fisheries must be involved in cooperative management strategies that promote the sustainability of this shared resource.


Learn more about the biology of the white seabass

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Aalbers, S. A., G. M. Stutzer, and M. A. Drawbridge. 2004. The effects of catch-and-release angling on the growth and survival of juvenile white seabass captured on offset circle and J-type hooks. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 24:793-800

Vojkovich, M. and R. Reed. 1983. White seabass Atractoscion nobilis in California-Mexican waters: status of the fishery. California Cooperative OceanicFisheries Investigation Reports 24:79-83

California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). 2002. White seabass fishery management plan (WSFMP). California Department of Fish and Game.

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The Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research, PIER, is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Oceanside, California.