The west coast live bait fishery



The face of the wiry old skipper is illuminated by the dimmed screens of the bridge electronics. He is focused on a red blob of anchovy showing on a port side whack of the sonar. The glow from a single red bridge light colors the etched lines of concentration on the old man’s face. After spinning the wheel to starboard the skipper grabs the mike from the hailer and hollers “let ‘er go!”

The small skiff, attached to the end of the purse seine net, drops off the transom and bucks in the wake of the turning vessel. The small bait boat continues in a broad circle paying out rugged black cork-lined net. The crewman in the skiff fires up the motor and begins a counter circle to entrap the large school of anchovies. Meeting at the top of the set, the net wraps around the school of small fish and the purse line is dropped in the block.

After the heavy spectra line draws the purse shut, the whole seine bag is slowly drawn smaller and tighter alongside the bobbing bait boat. The crew immediately drop in the brailer and begin to take wet scoops of the shimmering fish up over the gunwale and into the water bearing holds below deck. Scoop by scoop the brailer carefully and cautiously moves the live bait and gently dips the small fish into the waiting holds. A crewman gauges the well-being of the bait and counts the brails until the hold is at capacity. The second hold goes just as smoothly. Fair weather and minimal swell make tonight’s work a little easier. With full holds the bait boat wheels around and turns toward the barn as the crew cleans up and secures the deck. The sun rises in the east.

THE BAIT BOAT finishes up an early morning set.

It is a scene that plays out every nearly every night off the coast of Southern California in the summertime. It is a nightly dance and ritual that results in the capture of live bait. The live bait sport fishery off the southern California bight is unique. Not in the sense that live bait isn’t utilized on the East, Florida and Texas coasts but that live bait is a much more integral part of the success of the southern California sport fishery.

The principal reason is that west coast waters are home to two bait species that are plentiful, hardy, ideally sized and able to live in, on deck or below deck bait tanks, plumbed with sea water. Anchovy and sardine are the mainstays of the live bait fishery. Holding, chumming and utilizing these small fish for live bait is the most efficient way to catch gamefish on the southern California and Mexican coast. The bait draws the gamefish to the boat where they take the hooked bait. The chum is as important as the hook bait.

A WEST COAST drum seine live bait boat.

Anchovies and sardines are the most plentiful and the predominant baitfish on the west coast and are the backbone of the coastal marine ecosystem and the forage base for inshore and offshore gamefish. Cooler northern currents and warmer southern currents co-mingle off the southern California bight. Offshore islands and canyons up-well nutrient rich waters providing ideal forage for schools of anchovies and sardines. These small fish are filter feeders preying on crustaceans, copepods, fish larvae and phytoplankton. Larval anchovies and sardines feed extensively on the eggs, larvae, and juvenile stages of copepods, as well as other zooplankton and phytoplankton.


The whole process of fishing with live bait involves three legs. The first leg as described, is hauling the anchovies and sardines. The second leg is holding the live bait and distributing the bait to sportboats both commercial and private. The final leg is utilizing the bait onboard the fishing vessel to catch gamefish.

Once the bait is hauled, it is crowded out of the tanks into receivers on a floating “bait dock.” The dock holds anywhere from a dozen to over forty bait receiver boxes which are constructed from wire mesh allowing the tidal flow in the harbor to aerate the fish. After a few days in the receiver, the weak will die off and the bait will “cure.” Once cured, it survives the transfer to bait tanks aboard sportfishing vessels much better. Both private boats and multi-passenger sportfishing boats tie up to the bait receiver and load live bait.

THE RECEIVER floating bait boxes in San Diego Bay.

Aboard sportfishing vessels, the live bait is held in plumbed bait tanks cycling seawater. On the fishing grounds, the bait is chummed into the waters to draw fish into striking range. Then, passengers use the live bait to hook and land sport fish. Much more live bait goes toward chumming than for what is called “hook bait.”

It is in the light of describing the whole process that I bring up the fact that the hauling and utilizing of live bait is under scrutiny in California by those who believe the operations are impacting the anchovy and sardine stocks. To begin, the stocks are subject to boom and bust cycles. Examples of these ups and downs are illustrated by the sardines off the California coast. This fishery grew to over half a million tons in the later 1930s and early 1940s, but quicker than this growth occurred, catches rapidly declined in the late 1940s to one-sixth the size of the previous years. This pattern was also mirrored in the western Pacific off the coast of Japan. Several years of overfishing damaged stocks in the 50s and 60s and after conservation measures and federal management, the fishery returned strongly in the late 80s. In warmer years, the sardines seem to thrive, in cooler years the anchovy are more plentiful. These cycles should be considered when assessing stocks.

SELLING LIVE BAIT to the large private boater fleet is an important part of the business.

The live bait fishery I have described is small in scale compared to commercial fishing operations. For example, in 2012 the California recreational Pacific sardine catch estimate as sampled from the California Recreational Fisheries Survey (CRFS) was 62.1 metric tons. This is close to a running average. Contrast that with the commercial interests who hauled anywhere from 75,000 to 120,000 metric tons a year each of the last 20 years. The amount taken by the sportfishing operations is a small fraction of the total take. Additionally, most of the live bait is chummed back into the waters. Over half to ¾ of the bait is used for chumming in the summer season. All this bait is returned in one way or the other to the marine ecosystem. This is much different than if the anchovies and sardines were canned or utilized for pet food, a common practice.

Another point when considering the impact of the live-bait fishery is the fact that it is a seasonal fishery. Most of the live bait is used from the months of May to October when gamefish feed actively on the surface. Because it is mostly bottom fishing in the winter months, live bait needs are minimal.

THE EVERINGHAM BROTHERS live bait receiver in San Diego Bay.

Economically, a point to consider is the fact that the sportfishing industry contributes much larger dollar amounts to the local economy in the forms of launch fees, lodging, restaurants, fuel, marine parts, services and fishing tackle. The small impacts to the fishery through live bait sportfishing are well compensated for, unlike many commercial ventures.

Due to past failures in sardine and anchovy stock management, a fear of overfishing is understandable. But blame must be placed in the proper quarters. Most experts will agree, the proliferation of bluefin pens off the northern Baja coast and the tremendous amount of bait required to grow these fish was the largest human impact on the bait fishery stocks. As many as 30 boats were operating year-round hauling bait for the dozens of growing pens. Those bait schools are the same fish that breeze off the California coast. But the winds of the global markets have shifted and the cost of raising bluefin in pens is no longer profitable. The pens have been removed and the pressure on the bait fisheries have lifted.

The amount of live bait used in sportfishing is exceedingly small compared to commercial fishing efforts. The money that sportfishing generates more than makes up for the minimal impacts on the bait fish stocks. Fishery managers should focus on the larger commercial impacts which have much smaller contributions to local economies. Efforts to eliminate the live bait fishery in order to protect anchovy and sardine stocks do not hold up to scrutiny.

Gundy Gunderson is an outdoor writer who has contributed to many west coast sportfishing publications including more than 20 years at Western Outdoor News.