White seabass isn’t actually seabass, it’s a type of croaker known for its large size and good flavor. In addition to white seabass, the fish is marketed as white weakfish and king croaker. White seabass is sold fresh and frozen as fillets and has a firm texture with moist flakes when cooked lending itself to a lot of culinary options. Although it is available year-round, pricing is best during summer months.
Key sustainability sourcing notes based on average landings of white seabass from 2014-2016 and using the most recent 2018 Seafood Watch assessment is as follows:
~100% of white seabass landings meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (wild-caught from California)
White seabass landings have decreased ~10% from 2016 compared to 2014 and ~40% from 2016 compared to 2012
Hook and line-caught white seabass (~30% of landings) was previously a "Best Choice (green)" option but was downgraded to a "Good Alternative" in October 2018
~65% of white seabass is landed in Santa Barbara, California, ~15% in Los Angeles, ~10% in the combination of San Francisco, Morro Bay, Monterey, and Bodega Bay, and ~10% from San Diego
White seabass are distinguishable by a raised ridge along the length of their belly and a continuous dorsal fin. Females generally mature at three years old and 24 inches in length, and males at two years old and 20 inches in length. The oldest reported white seabass was 27 years old, and heaviest reported was 93 pounds and five feet long. Females spawn four to five times in a season, which is typically during the summer, and can lay over one million eggs. The eggs float with the ocean current until they develop into dark-colored larvae and settle in coastal areas. Warmer ocean temperatures, such as the El Niño effect, have helped to increase the survival of young white seabass. Populations are shown to migrate northwards during these periods. Adult white seabass have a versatile diet, eating a variety of fish and invertebrates including northern anchovy, Pacific mackerel, market squid, and pelagic red crab.
White seabass primarily inhabit the coastal waters of southern California and Baja California, Mexico. They are also found in the northern Gulf of California, Monterey Bay, and can even be observed as far north as Juneau, Alaska during periods of warmer ocean temperatures. White seabass eggs are buoyant and will drift with ocean currents, settling in coastal areas. Juvenile white seabass are often located near drifting debris and algae in shallow areas just outside the surf zone while older juveniles are found in kelp beds and in protected bays usually near eelgrass beds. As white seabass mature, they can be found schooling along rocky bottoms and near kelp beds along the coast and offshore islands. Adults are also known to school several miles offshore.
Science & Management
The California State Legislature passed a set of laws following a fishery collapse in the early 1980s, which allocated funding of aquaculture research for depleted finfish. Through this, the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP) has supplemented white seabass stocks since 1986. Managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, OREHP has released over two million white seabass juveniles into the ocean. In order to facilitate and continue OREHP research, anglers are encouraged to freeze the head of their catch and take them to local drop-off stations for further genetic analysis.
White seabass are managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) under the White Seabass Fishery Management Plan (WSFMP). The WSFMP was developed in 1995 in response to historic overfishing and conflict between recreational and commercial fishermen over the fishery. The Plan was adopted in 1996 by the Fish and Game Commission, but regulations to implement the plan were not adopted at that time. In accordance with the Marine Life Management Act, the CDFW revised the plan and it was formally adopted in 2002.
Each year the Southern California Fisheries Research & Management Project, in collaboration with fishery stakeholders, conducts an annual review and report of the white seabass fishery as required by the WSFMP. Additionally, each year the White Seabass Scientific and Constituent Advisory Panel meets to consider if current management measures are adequate in protecting populations. Among current management measures are:
Established minimum size limits
Seasonal closures to protect spawning aggregations
Annual harvest quotas
While there is no formal stock assessment for white seabass off of California, commercial landings have not exceeded the recommended optimal yield since the implementation of the WSFMP in 2002. U.S. vessels are not permitted to fish for white seabass in Mexican waters and the Mexican government has prohibited access permits to the U.S. commercial fleet since the early 1980s.
White seabass aggregate to spawn but overall they are inherently resilient to fishing pressure because they mature young, have high fecundity, and the stocks are protected during their primary breeding season.
The white seabass populations that inhabit the Eastern Pacific between Alaska and southern California experienced severe declines in the past and some were overfished but they are currently classified as healthy with a moderate conservation concern.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Most white seabass are caught with drift and set gillnets. Some fishermen, primarily off the California coast, use hook-and-line gear to catch white seabass. Drift gillnets and hook-and-line gear don’t touch the seafloor so they have minimal impacts on the marine habitat. However, set gillnets have weights that get dragged over rocky habitats, which has a moderate effect on the habitat, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Hook-and-line gear has minimal risk of bycatch in the white seabass fishery because anything caught can easily be released, but most of the fish are caught with gillnets that can accidentally ensnare protected Pacific white sharks and marine animals such as dolphins, sea lions, and sea birds. The actual bycatch rates in this fishery are not known.
Management of white seabass is considered effective. A fishery management plan drafted by scientists that requires an annual review was implemented in 1998 and updated in 2002. Fishery managers have maintained stock productivity, enforced regulations relating to gear, logbooks, catch size and weight, as well as seasonal and area closures, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.