Peter James MacCracken, APR | | (619) 275-4110
Celina Maggi | | (619) 909-3449

Helping white seabass species thrive is a lesson in marine conservation

It takes just minutes to get a license and reel a fish out of the ocean. But putting fish back into the sea, that takes a lot more effort.

A group of students from San Clemente High School spent the last couple of months growing and caring for young white seabass, which they released this week at Baby Beach in Dana Point, capping off a project that is part conservation, part education and all passion for the budding marine researchers.

While it was the San Clemente students’ first time taking on the Seabass in the Classroom project, created by the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, schools across Southern California have been participating in the program since 2011.

Celina Maggi, director of development for the institute, said 13 schools from Los Angeles to San Diego have taken part in similar projects.

“For us, getting that excitement at an early age is really important, so that kids will look to these careers as they go on,” she said, describing a “blue economy.”

This project to help replenish depleted stocks of white seabass helped solidify student Jack Thralls’ plan to study marine science at UC Santa Cruz after he graduates next month.

“It’s so rad to actually be a part of something that is helping with ocean marine conservation. That’s what I want to do with my life, I want to help the ocean,” said Thralls, who grew up in the beach town and has surfed since he was 10. “I’ve just had a special connection with the ocean. It hurts me to see all this pollution and stuff, how unhealthy we make the ocean. I want to try my best to make it better.”

White seabass were once plentiful along the coast, but during the 1980s the fishery was decimated for a number of reasons, overfishing being one of the primary causes, Maggi explained.

The student projects are part of a larger replenishment program launched by the Hubbs-SeaWorld institute in the ’80s. Fish are cultured in a hatchery in Carlsbad and then raised by school and volunteer groups before being released into the ocean, an estimated 2.7 million put into the ocean to date.

“What we really want to see is a robust fishery,” Maggi said. “It’s important ecologically to have that species back into the ocean.”

While some of the hatched fish are taken to ocean pens that dot the coast to mature further before being released after they’ve grown a few months, others are taken to schools and grown in the classrooms.

Nancy Caruso, founder of the nonprofit Get Inspired, a group dedicated to helping ocean species thrive, has teamed with the research institute’s effort to bring the white seabass program to six different schools across Orange County in the past 12 years, including Westminster, Los Alamitos and now San Clemente, resulting in an estimated 2,500 white bass released into the ocean off the local coast.

“No one else is releasing fish in the ocean,” Caruso said. “And this is done by students, so it’s even more impactful when kids get a hand in putting things back.”

It’s part of a larger classroom effort by Get Inspired that has taught more than 12,000 students through the years to grow kelp, abalone and fish in their classrooms for the hands-on science and restoration curriculum.

Teacher Michelle Brislen said it was a fun learning process for the estimated 180 San Clemente students who came in throughout five periods each day ready to care for the fish.

Each day, students would take measurements, log data and make sure nitrates and salinity levels were balanced.

“Once the fish came, it was really exciting,” Brislen said. “It was really a great learning experience.”

The group of students broke out in applause when they heard how much they had grown the fish: from 0.8 grams to 9 grams the day they were released.

When it was time to free the fish in the sea, students were buzzing on the beach with torn emotions. It wasn’t easy, several of them said, to let go of their babies.

“They leave and you will never see them again,” said Blake McAlpin, comparing the fish to kids who go off to college.

But he knows it’s important to put them back out into the wild, he said.

“It’s part of the food chain. If these die out, all the other ones die out,” he said. “So even our little effort changes the world.”

Caruso gave a few tips to the students and warned the fish are used to being in the tanks, so they might not know what to do at first and may just stay in one spot.

“This is the best part,” she added, “you get to say goodbye.”

Thralls had a huge smile after setting a seabass free in the salt water.

“It’s so awesome, it’s such a good feeling,” he said. “We’re actually doing something, making change and helping the environment. It’s cool to be a part of it.”

Student Molly Graff also said there was a lot of satisfaction knowing the students were making a difference for the future, growing a species that needs a helping hand.

She gently put her fish into the calm harbor water world, but danger lurked – a crab quickly started chasing the small seabass.

Shooing its claws away with her bare feet, Graff said, “Gotta save my babies.”


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Helping white seabass species thrive is a lesson in marine conservation