Worth Their Weight

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Worth Their Weight
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(Photo: Desmond Ho)

Source: UC Santa Barbara

Almost as large as a Smart car, giant sea bass can weigh more than 500 pounds and grow longer than 6 feet. At this size, they are the largest bony fish found along the California coast.

Once commercially important, these gentle giants were overfished in the 1900s, leading to the collapse of the fishery in the 1970s. Now, they are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, making them as imperiled as the black rhino.

In a new study, UCSB researchers investigated the different economic values of giant sea bass — paradoxically both a flagship species to the recreational dive industry and regularly sold in California’s commercial fisheries when incidentally caught — to two key stakeholders: commercial fishers and recreational scuba divers. Their findings appear in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

“Analyzing commercial catch data, we found that the average annual value of the giant sea bass fishery to fishers in California was $12,600,” said lead author Ana Sofia Guerra, a graduate student in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (EEMB). “This represents less than 1 percent of the value of the non-endangered fish commercial fishers are actually targeting: white sea bass and California halibut, which are healthy and sustainable seafood options.”

While giant sea bass can no longer be targeted by commercial fishermen, if one is caught in a gill net during the capture of other species, it can be sold, which is why this endangered fish still appears regularly on restaurant menus and in fish markets.

Using self-reported fishery catch location data, the researchers identified seasonal bycatch hotspots, where commercial fishermen were not catching white sea bass or halibut but accidentally caught a lot of giant sea bass. According to co-author Douglas McCauley, an EEMB assistant professor, managing such ocean pockets as seasonal giant sea bass sanctuaries would likely have minimal or no financial impact on California’s important fisheries but might create a lot more worth for the dive industry.

Although the economic value of a species generally is equated with consumption, the growth of ecotourism has expanded the range of value to include animal interaction — think photography or wildlife viewing.

“Approximately 1.38 million dives are done in California on an annual basis,” Guerra said. “Annual direct expenditures from scuba diving in California range from $161 to $323 million.”

Giant sea bass are to California divers what a bison sighting might be to a visitor in Yellowstone National Park. An iconic part of the state’s underwater wilderness, giant sea bass have a curious gentle disposition, yet some divers go years without seeing one.

To ascertain the value of giant sea bass in the scuba community, the scientists surveyed recreational divers in Southern California online and in person. They rode along on recreational dive boats to determine the worth divers place on a rare face-to-face encounter with these unique creatures.

The researchers estimated that average annual value at $2.3 million. This amount does not represent a direct cash flow to the diving industry but rather is derived from how much value divers assign to a sighting of this gigantic fish. The high value to divers demonstrates the potential for an industry centered on giant sea bass viewing, which could be more lucrative than their consumption potential.

Similar values have been estimated for other charismatic ocean species. Reef sharks in Palau were found to be over 17 times more valuable alive as an ecotourism attraction in their lifetimes than dead in the market. Globally, the estimated annual economic value of manta ray tourism is $140 million, which substantially exceeds the annual $5 million value of the manta ray gill raker trade.

Viewing value in this way highlights the importance of giant sea bass beyond a fishery and stresses the importance of considering all stakeholders in policy and management plans, Guerra noted. “Fishing and ecotourism or wildlife viewing are not mutually exclusive activities,” she said. “The paper highlights ways to strategically maximize the value of giant sea bass to both stakeholders.” 

To learn more, visit news.ucsb.edu

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420722 Oct 15, 2017 06:04 PM
Worth Their Weight

With a handle like sea dog I bet your right :)

sea dog Oct 14, 2017 11:01 AM
Worth Their Weight

Black Sea Bass may visit shallow water to feed but spend most of their lives in deeper, colder water. Warmer water makes a fish eat more because of a higher metabolism. Black Sea Bass live to 100 years old because they move as little as possible ... This is the exact opposite of a tuna that tries to eat more to keep up with a higher metabolism. One reason marine protected areas have more fish is they like to close areas that have the most fish because of underwater features. Fish don't gather in sandy areas and would not just because it was closed to fishing ...

a-1508095020 Oct 15, 2017 12:17 PM
Worth Their Weight

Black sea bass used to be more abundant along our coast until the fishery depleted their numbers almost to extinction, which is why it is so rare to see one now. It's not just because they are deep, it's because they are no longer in the ocean. While it is theorized that, as you say, black sea bass spend a lot of the year in deep water, they do come up to shallow waters during the summer months to mate and this is when divers typically, and usually in the case of some islands such as Catalina and Anacapa, encounter them. *Puts lab coat on over diving gear, steps off soapbox*

Bodyboarder73 Oct 14, 2017 09:35 AM
Worth Their Weight

I daw a giant sea bass about 15 years ago off Avalon at Lover's Cove on Catalina. I was snorkeling in about 20-30 feet of water and that area is a protected marine habitat. Probably why I saw one.

sea dog Oct 14, 2017 08:53 AM
Worth Their Weight

i spent over 10,000 hours underwater diving sea urchins and saw very few black sea bass. The reason is Black Sea Bass live in water deeper than most sport divers swim in. If we had lots of deep water wreck divers, they would find Black Sea Bass. We don't so the value of B.S.B. to divers is literally zero, no matter what UCSB says. They spend time in a lab. I spent my life underwater ...

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