Why Albacore Come and Go

'Most opportunities [to catch fish] exist in late spring through early fall -- June, July, August, and September," explains Catherine Miller, a representative of the San Diego Sport Fishing Council. "San Diego's glamour fish are yellowtail and albacore tuna. We caught our first albacore in March last year, but they generally arrive in June." On Sunday, April 23, the Port of San Diego will host the 27th annual "Day at the Docks" sportfishing festival. "We have a very healthy fishery here," says Miller. According to her catch-history graph of the past 20 years, 62,713 albacore tuna were caught in 2004. In 1992 only two albacore were caught, and no catches were recorded for 1994 and 1995.

No one cause has been attributed to the albacore's absence during those years, but one theory is that the water might have been too warm. "If the water is warmer, other species usually come in their place," Miller says. "Yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, yellowtail, and dorado, also known as mahimahi, are warm-water fish."

Anglers are expected to know which species of fish to leave in the ocean. In April 2005 a man was arrested for spearing a giant black sea bass -- a protected species in California since 1982. These huge fish can live up to 100 years; they range between three to seven feet in length and can weigh over 500 pounds. They are hermaphroditic, meaning they hatch as females and change into males as they mature. Although humans are their only serious predator, giant black sea bass are not timid around people and have been known to swim right up next to divers. The giant black sea bass's numbers have been increasing since being declared a protected species.

Another fish that was disappearing in the early '80s but is making a comeback is the white sea bass. According to projectpacific.org, "The white sea bass population along the southern California coast is currently at very low levels due to overfishing and habitat destruction...since 1984 there has been an experimental program involving hatchery-produced fish intended to help restore the white sea bass stock." Part of this restocking involves "reintroducing up to 5000 white sea bass into Mission Bay every five to six months." Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute operates the hatchery.

There are still plenty of catchable fish to be found, such as the sand bass and calico bass. "We're still getting sculpin, a red rockfish," says Miller. "It has poisonous spines, but it's really tasty. I've made sculpin fish tacos; you can filet it like any kind of fish. It's a light-flavored fish with white meat."

One of the industry's biggest challenges has been the increase in the price of fuel. A fishing boat's fuel capacity will generally range from 500 gallons to 28,000 gallons. "The customer pays the ultimate price in the end," says Phil Lobred, co-owner of H&M Landing. On an average day-trip, this may result in a price increase of $10 per passenger.

"This year we set an all-time record on 200-pound tuna. You can fish for many, many years and not drag in a 200-pound tuna." 2284 tuna weighing over 200 pounds have been caught so far this season, which began October 2005 and ends June 2006. Most of the huge fish are coming from one of two locations, each of which is at least an eight-day round-trip from San Diego. The first is Hurricane Bank (also known as Larson Seamount), an offshore bank off the coast of Baja California, about 1000 miles from San Diego. The second location is just southwest of Magdalena Bay, north of Cabo San Lucas, and approximately 500 miles from San Diego.

Using a variety of methods, commercial boats have caught tuna weighing almost 800 pounds. But, advises Lobred, "There's no reel in the world that can hold a fish that big. You're never going to land a fish like that unless it decides to hop on your boat."

Catching even a 200-pounder can take its toll on a rod and reel. "Most people think marlin are the fightin'-est fish in the water," says Lobred. When fishing for marlin (a fish that can weigh up to 1300 pounds), anglers strap themselves to a "fighting chair" that is attached to the deck of the boat and hold on tight as they wait for the fish to tire itself out before they attempt to reel it in.

For tuna, anglers use what Lobred refers to as the "West Coast style, stand-up-and-follow-your-fish type of sport fishing." As the hooked tuna swims laps around the boat, "about ten laps," the angler runs along with rod in hand and "goes over and under everyone else, all the while trying to keep the lines from tangling up." Lobred adds, "If you're planted in a chair, there's no way to do that. Where we fish for big tuna, they've got thousands of feet to go down, and when a 200-pound fish is pulling you right along with it, your reel starts smoking." -- Barbarella

27th Annual "Day at the Docks" Sportfishing Festival Sunday, April 23 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. America's Cup Harbor 1500 Scott Street (at Harbor Drive) San Diego Bay Cost: Free Info: 619-234-8793 or www.sportfishing.org

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