Scripps researchers enlist the curious in fish-tagging project

By Will Bowen

On Oct. 1, the temperature soared to over 100-degrees in San Diego’s inland areas, but out on the water, a sport-fishing boat was angling in the La Jolla kelp beds where the weather was delightfully cool with a bit of fog and wind, just off our rocky coast.

Fifteen volunteer fishermen huddled in the boat’s stern casting out anchovies or dropping bits of squid strips to the bottom, hoping to hook-up an elusive calico bass — a local and abundant species that roams our kelp beds and rocky reefs.

Standing on the large bait tank, where thousands of live anchovies and sardines swam in endless circles, was quest skipper Ken Frankie, president of the San Diego Sport Fishing Association, who barked out advice and encouragement to the anglers on the deck below him.

Wearing a large straw hat, Lyall Bellquist, a fourth-year Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) graduate student, stood ready to check fish in, armed with his measuring ruler and fish-tagging gun filled with tiny white labels, each with an identification number and a phone number to call if the fish was ever re-caught.

Bellquist came up with the idea of tagging local species of bass — calico bass, barred sand bass, and spotted bay bass — so residents could follow their growth and movement patterns and learn about the status and health of their populations.

The Collaborative Fisheries Research West (CFRW), a non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, believed in his research enough to give him a two-year $240,000 grant to fund his project.

Bellquist works under the supervision of principle investigator Dr. Brice Semmons, an ecologist who develops quantitative tools useful in creating models of fish populations.

Also involved in the project are Erica Jarvis of The California Department of Fish & Game, as well as Dave Rudie and John Valencia of the San Diego Oceans Foundation.

“This project is important because we need to know more about the local bass populations, which are the kingpin of our recreational fisheries,” Bellquist said. “Bass are also an indicator species of the health of the local aquatic environments where they reside.”

Dr. Semmons added, “The community of La Jolla, especially fishermen, divers, naturalists, and water-sports enthusiasts, all value and love the local kelp forest. This research will help us better understand how to keep that habitat intact and sustainable for the future. We want our grandchildren to be able to enjoy the coast, kelp beds, and fisheries as much as we do.”

Bellquist is a San Diego native and graduate of Torrey Pines High School. He earned a B.A. in aquatic biology from UC Santa Barbara and an M.A. from Cal State Long Beach, where he tagged fish at Catalina Island. He also worked for two years on the White Sea Bass Project at the Hubbs- Seaworld Institute.

Semmons is from Minnesota. His father was also a professor. Semmons said he was first exposed to fishing when his dad took him shark fishing in the Florida Keys during the off-season. Semmons did his undergraduate work at Lawrence University and earned his Ph.D. from Texas A&M University.

Bellquist is adamant that public outreach, education and involvement be an integral part of the tagging project. “We want people to know about it and be involved. We have had two public fishing charters already, where private individuals were invited along free of charge, and we have tagged over 300 calico bass.

“We are planning to have many more fishing charters where interested people can contribute to the research. If anyone catches one of our tagged bass and calls in the information, he or she will be entered in a monthly drawing for a $200 gas card.”

Semmons said this project offers a new and different, more inclusive, approach to fisheries management. “What’s unique about it is that we’re bringing the fishermen, the sport fishing industry and the scientists together to work collectively and harmoniously for good.”

Bellquist is also optimistic. “This project is the doorway for a new type of cooperative long-term research on all of our different species of fish,” he said.

Want to join the project?

■ Go to or e-mail Lyall Bellquist at