With the Channel Islands rising darkly from the lumbering swells, the crews aboard the Lenbrooke and Crusader did something Thursday that doesn't come naturally to those in their line of work.
Dipping their nets into the small holds of the sportfishing boats, they cast off what most fishermen would pay good money to keep--a trove of white sea bass.
The 1,000 or so fish released into the ocean near the breakwater at Channel Islands Harbor are a drop in the bucket compared with the number hauled in over the years.
Those fish, however, represent the beginning of an ambitious plan spearheaded by the Channel Islands Marine Resource Institute to replenish the sea bass population and others like it with fish raised on shore.
"The numbers tell us there's something going on out there that isn't good," said Tom McCormick, vice president of the Port Hueneme-based nonprofit organization. "What we're trying to do is different. . . . This is taking a more active role in trying to preserve the fishery, and it's a plan
that, I think, is starting to show some promise."
For years, conservation has been the keyword in protecting fisheries off the California coast.
Limiting commercial takes, establishing fishing seasons and closing some areas to fishing have traditionally been the means used to protect the ocean environment.
With luck, however, the marine resource institute hopes to replace conservation with restoration as the tactic used to rehabilitate depleted fisheries.
"It's taking a different approach to solving the problem," McCormick said. "It's something that we think can be used together with other methods to bring the fishery back to past levels."
For more than a century, freshwater fish have been raised on farms and released into lakes and rivers.
But the problems in reproducing ocean environments--where factors such as salinity, temperature and turbidity must all be carefully balanced--have made raising saltwater fish an almost impossible endeavor until very recently.
There are now dozens of saltwater fish farms up and down the Pacific Coast. These farms raise fish in fenced-in pens in the ocean.
Operating as part of the federally mandated Ocean Resource Enhancement Hatchery Program, the marine resource institute raises its fish in 5,000-gallon pools on land.
McCormick said the contained environment allows institute workers to tweak such factors as temperature and feeding to encourage faster growth.
The fish released Thursday--the institute's second bunch--have been raised from eggs for approximately the last six months.
With the help of two boats on loan from Captain Hook's Sportfishing, the fish were released on the leeward side of the harbor breakwater.
All were about 8 inches long when cast into the ocean, large enough to allow the fish to escape predators.
Still, marauding sea gulls managed to grab a few near the surface. Most, however, disappeared into the blue-green water.
Organizations like the marine resource institute hope to eventually raise and release about 400,000 fish of varying species each year, up from the 40,000 annually released now. It will take years until the target is reached.
Located at the Port of Hueneme, the institute also conducts marine research and a number of educational programs for area schools.
"There is a lot that we're trying to do, and luckily they're all trying to meet the same goal, which is preservation," said institute President Lori Buckley.
Among the pools, aquariums and vats of infant shrimp at the institute is its newest and perhaps most ambitious project: a system for spawning abalone.
The waters off the Channel Islands were once renowned for the beds of abalone that fed on kelp and thrived in the cool Pacific currents.
A survey conducted in the early 1970s, McCormick said, counted as many as 30,000 abalone, but those numbers have fallen to an alarming level.
"Not long ago they went out to count them again," he said. "They used a submarine, and in over a week of looking, they found about 50."
Working with scientists at UC Santa Barbara, the institute will begin spawning and raising abalone in hopes of one day returning them to the ocean.
In addition, they have similar programs in the works for rockfish and halibut.
"The time has really come for us to start paying attention to the resource, because it's disappearing," McCormick said. "These resources are here for the people of Ventura County, and it doesn't matter what hat you're wearing. Whether you're a commercial fisherman, sportfisherman or just like to throw a line in the water sometimes, it's all of ours."