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'Illusion of Plenty' Masking Collapse of Two Key Southern California Fisheries

Scripps-led study finds overfishing of spawning areas, environmental conditions behind collapse of two bass species

The two most important recreational fisheries off Southern California have collapsed, according to a new study led by a researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Scripps postdoctoral researcher Brad Erisman and his colleagues examined the health of regional populations of barred sand bass and kelp bass-staple catches of Southern California's recreational fishing fleet-by combining information from fishing records and other data on regional fish populations. Stocks of both species have collapsed due to a combination of overfishing of their breeding areas and changes in oceanographic conditions, the researchers found.

As they describe in the most recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, the researchers say the total amount, or biomass, of each bass species decreased 90 percent since 1980. Yet fisheries catch rates have remained stable for a number of years, even as overall population sizes dropped drastically. This is due, the authors say, to a phenomenon known as "hyperstability" in which fishing targets spawning areas at which large numbers of fish congregate, leading to a misleading high catch rate and masking a decline in the overall population.

"The problem is when fish are aggregating in these huge masses, fishermen can still catch a lot each trip, so everything looks fine-but in reality the true population is declining," said Erisman, a member of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. "So as the true abundance is declining, the fisheries data used to assess the health of the fisheries are not showing that and give no indication of a collapse-this is referred to as 'the illusion of plenty.'"

Erisman says the cod fishery that collapsed in the North Atlantic Ocean is the world's most famous example of fisheries data masking an impending collapse, but other fish stocks in regions where fish congregate to spawn are declining as well.

In order to grasp a clear picture of the true health of the barred sand bass and kelp bass in Southern California, Erisman and his colleagues looked outside fisheries data. They tapped into fish population numbers tracked by power plant generating stations, which are required to log fish entrapments as part of their water cooling systems, and underwater visual censuses conducted by Occidental College since 1974.

The authors acknowledge that both bass species began declining in the early 1980s, a drop other studies have directly linked with a climatic shift in regional water temperatures. But they say fishing impacts exacerbated the declines.

"The combined evidence from this study indicates that persistent overfishing of seasonal spawning aggregations by recreational fisheries brought about the collapse of barred sand bass and kelp bass stocks in Southern California," the authors write in their paper.

"The relationship between catch rate and stock abundance suggests there is an urgent need to incorporate fisheries-independent monitoring to create something sustainable and monitor the fisheries effectively," said Erisman. "While fisheries monitoring remains a key part of management, it is clear that such data alone do not provide an accurate assessment of stock condition."

Larry Allen of California State University Northridge; Jeremy Claisse and Daniel Pondella II of Occidental College; Eric Miller of MBC Applied Environmental Sciences; and Jason Murray of the University of South Carolina coauthored the study.

The research was supported by Scripps' Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, the Walton Family Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The Vantuna Research Group (Claisse and Pondella) of Occidental College has been supported by Chevron.

Note to broadcast and cable producers: University of California, San Diego provides an on-campus satellite uplink facility for live or pre-recorded television interviews. Please phone or e-mail the media contact listed above to arrange an interview.

About Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today in 65 countries. The institution has a staff of about 1,400, and annual expenditures of approximately $170 million from federal, state and private sources. Scripps operates robotic networks, and one of the largest U.S. academic fleets with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration. Birch Aquarium at Scripps serves as the interpretive center of the institution and showcases Scripps research and a diverse array of marine life through exhibits and programming for more than 415,000 visitors each year. Learn more at

Mario Aguilera | EurekAlert!
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