How the Striped Bass Became Labelled as a California Native Species
As gestures go, declaring striped bass a “native species” of California was a real laugher.
Fearing someone might develop a case of sanity around a fish that thrives by eating actual native species like salmon, smelt and trout, the outgoing president of California’s Fish & Game Commission acted unilaterally on the striped bass’s behalf. He made them all freshwater citizens of California.
By declaring striped bass a “native species,” Jim Kellogg was trying to give his beloved bass the same standing as the true natives that bass eat. Fortunately, Kellogg and his overreach left the commission last January. Unfortunately, his legacy lives on in staffers and thousands of his fishing pals. That flawed legacy could well deny those who rely on our rivers the best opportunity to ensure both the survival of endangered species and thousands of farming jobs in the San Joaquin Valley.
The Unconventional Theory of The Stripers
The so-called “stripers” were introduced into the Delta over a century ago because they’re fun to catch. Since then, the state has pampered these predators with rules guaranteed to create more and bigger stripers. Catch one less than 18 inches, throw it back so it can feast on more smelt and grow. Catch two, you’re done; mustn’t decrease the population.
“We all know big fish eat little fish; it’s simple,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta. “We know (commission) policies are designed to increase both the number and size of (bass). … The problem is that what they’re eating are the endangered native species.”
The coalition represents Valley water users south of the Delta and along the west side. It wanted to show commissioners emerging scientific proof that stripers have decimated salmon and smelt populations and they’re also eating tons of trout. Worse, they’ve moved out of the Delta and farther up the Sacramento, San Joaquin and other Valley rivers to feed.
Among those to testify was Doug Demko, an avid fisherman and biologist with 25 years’ experience on rivers all over the world but with special expertise on the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. There was also support from state and federal regulators who long ago reached the same conclusion – striped bass are killing protected species.
The Striped Bass Are Actually Killing Our Protected Species
Knowing what was coming, commission staff – with their stripers-are-best mindset – submitted a hands-off recommendation before the meeting began. Their fishing buddies chimed in, too. So state commissioners put a 10-minute limit on the coalition’s presentation.
Ten minutes to debunk decades of faulty science with fresh data. Ten minutes to examine the illogical premise that only more water will save native species. Ten minutes to give protected smelt, steelhead trout and salmon a fighting chance. Boccadoro saw the futility and canceled. But he didn’t give up.
Unequivocally, salmon and trout need more and colder water. But their plummeting numbers cannot be explained without considering predation. Here’s the problem. Denied a means of limiting stripers, federal regulators have but one tool to save protected fish – flow control. They were forced to turn off the Delta pumps, cutting flows into San Luis Reservoir which is about 90% empty despite above-average rain. It’s why New Melones is only a quarter full while nearby Don Pedro is two-thirds full.
Meanwhile, a different state agency is preparing to demand more water from our rivers. The State Water Resources Control Board insists it’s the only way to save endangered salmon and steelhead. If that’s true, it’s because the Fish & Game Commission repeatedly refuses to allow more stripers to be caught – preferring to blame salmon and steelhead losses entirely on “degraded habitat.”
Trout & Salmon are Disappearing, But Stripers are Everywhere
So the same “degraded habitat” that has decimated salmon has had the opposite effect on predator species such as striped bass who live in the exact same habitat. Trout and salmon are disappearing, but stripers are everywhere. Are they immune to whatever is making natives disappear? Or will more water just result in more stripers? Until that’s answered, don’t expect anyone here to acquiesce to the state’s demands – especially as various state bureaucrats work at cross purposes.
Last week, a bipartisan group of 21 state Senators and Assemblymember – including 10 who represent districts in the Valley – urged the Fish & Game Commission to revisit its bass limits. The commission got the same request in 2015 from the chief deputy director of the Department of Water Resources and several federal agencies. They wanted “greater fishing pressure” on bass to “reduce predation of … (fish) protected under the Endangered Species Act.” As usual, Kellogg and his cronies refused. But now there are four new commissioners.
The day after Boccadoro canceled his 10-minute appearance, he crashed the commission’s public-comment portion and got a better reception. He isn’t asking to eradicate stripers, just to increase daily limit to four and lower the keeper size.
We’d prefer more robust changes, but mostly we want our state agencies to work together. Fish & Game should help, not fight, state and federal groups trying to save native fish.
Furthermore, they should expedite, not thwart, the work of scientists like Demko. Relying entirely on flows to save salmon and steelhead will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in our area – then fail.
We’re concerned about the survival of salmon and trout, just as we’re concerned about the survival of everyone who depends on our rivers.
This article was originally published on August 29, 2016 at The Fresno Bee.