Huck Finn had his raft. Henry VIII barged down the Thames. And recently Jim Donlon, 78, was towed two m.p.h. around Channel Islands Harbor on a mobile fish-rearing pen.
You will not find this unusual ride at the Ventura County Fair. August 10 was graduation day for more than 1,000 white sea bass that Donlon and fellow fishing enthusiasts raised for six months as part of a pilot program to replenish the species in Southern California waters.
"It was the first official release of pen-reared white sea bass in the harbor," said Donlon, a Camarillo resident. "They're a highly desirable fish for food and sportfishing. And they are badly depleted in the whole of Southern California."
But Donlon is determined to reverse that trend. And as chairman of the 110-member Ventura County chapter of United Anglers of California, the largest nonprofit fishing conservation organization in the state, he stands a good chance of succeeding.
"I grew up in a fishing environment in Ventura County with my uncles," said Donlon, who was born and reared in Oxnard. And until his retirement 15 years ago, he managed the Anacapa Boat Yard located just three or four blocks north of where the fish were released.
Donlon became involved in fish conservation in the mid-1960s when many fishing areas called fisheries were showing signs of exploitation. Then about six years ago the concept of artificial enhancement of marine fisheries was being explored in California.
"We were disgruntled because nobody was doing anything about enhancing the fishing in Southern California," said Donlon. "We toured operations in Tiburon near San Francisco and the Central Coast. And we felt if they can do it, we can do it. It gave us an invaluable opportunity to do something down here where the majority of the region's fishing community resides."
So the local United Anglers began a fish enhancement program with support funding from the fish and game commissions of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, and private contributions.
"Jim is the heart and soul of the operation. He started it," said fellow volunteer Sheldon Bergman, 50. "There are a lot of people who do volunteer work for us. But Jim is the motivating force."
Since implementing the program in 1990, the group has raised approximately 84,000 king salmon in dock space donated by CISCO Sportfishing and has released the salmon outside the harbor. Donlon is encouraged by the results. This year he has received 20 to 30 reports from fishermen who have caught and released undersized salmon locally. "I think that is highly significant and reflects that the salmon survived and either remained or returned to the area," said Donlon.
But now the group is rearing white sea bass with the help of researchers at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in San Diego. Donlon said that by manipulating water temperature and light, scientists have altered the spawning period of captive white sea bass to produce young year-round.
"We grow the fish to about two inches in size and transfer them here," said Mark Drawbridge, a marine biologist.
Due to cost considerations, in San Diego the fish could only be grown to four inches. "But with the help of Jim's group we've been able to reach the optimum release size of 8 to 9 inches. Once we got involved with this group, United Anglers in general saw the work Jim and other volunteers were doing and it snowballed," Drawbridge said. Now angling groups in Newport Bay, Marina del Rey, King Harbor in Santa Monica and even Catalina have expressed interest in the enhancement program.
About 80% of the fish are expected to survive their first year. Drawbridge estimated that the first release of white sea bass in Channel Islands Harbor will yield 300 to 500 legal-size, 28-inch-long fish in five years.
Before the release Donlon and other volunteers helped Drawbridge and program field manager Mike Shane measure and weigh a sample group of 100 fish. The anglers began raising the fish Feb. 1. They received medicated feed for the first month to fortify them against harmful bacteria commonly present in harbor waters.
During the examinations, Bob Rowe, a 66-year-old volunteer from Port Hueneme meticulously recorded the data and noted that 95% of the fish had retained the wire field tag device implanted at the hatchery.
"The program fish are identified to be caught later," said Donlon. "The point is to determine if artificial enhancement can be cost efficient to restore the white sea bass population in Southern California waters. There's a lot of interest about the release taking place here. And we are awaiting the news that the fish have found a happy home and are surviving well."
For information about the Ventura County chapter of United Anglers of California, call 482-4787. To learn more about fish enhancement or other programs of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, write to 1700 South Shores Road, San Diego, CA 92109, or call (619) 226-3943.