Among the onlookers is Steve Walters, their biology teacher, who stands with Mike Shane of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI). The two men watch as the students slowly tip over their bucket. Watching beneath the surface with a small camera connected to her phone, student Ciara Gray sees more than a dozen small fish swim free of the bucket and settle on the muddy bottom.
The fish are juvenile white sea bass, the largest of the California croakers and an important fish in the Southern California marine ecosystem. Although they are only a few inches long now, these fish could grow to be as much as 90 pounds and 5 feet in length over the next few years. In the mid-'70s, surveys showed that habitat and wetlands destruction had reduced the population to about 10 percent of what it once was.
In 1983, the California Department of Fish and Game began working with HSWRI to breed the fish from larvae to fingerling stage at the Carlsbad lagoon facility. From there, the fish are moved on to grow-out facilities located along the coast until they are ready to be released into the wild to restock the natural population.
Shane is the project leader for Sea Bass in the Classroom 2010, in which Walters’ biology classes at Mission Bay High have been participating since 2012. The program places some of the juvenile fish from the Hubbs restocking program with classes in high schools for periods ranging from weeks to months.
Mission Bay High was one of the first schools to participate in the classroom program. Walters' students care for the fish in a large tank in one of his classrooms and install microchips in their cheeks, using a syringe, before releasing them into the wild.
“This program gives the students a hands-on experience with chemistry, biology and core science technology engineering and math (STEM) subjects with real-world application of science that they are learning in the classroom,” says Walters.
The Fish and Game Department has set up several locations in San Diego where fishermen can drop off the heads of any white sea bass they catch hswri.org/media). The fish heads are stored in freezers until they can be collected and scanned for microchips embedded in their cheeks. This way, Hubbs and Fish and Game Department can determine if the fish was one from the program and tell where and when the fish was released.
Mission Bay High will receive its next batch of fish early in the new year, and Walters expects that they will release them in spring. More information about the program can be found at hswri.org/seabass-in-the-classroom/.