Blaming the Bass 

Environmentalists and scientists say that California regulators are scapegoating striped bass for the decline in Chinook salmon.

A new proposal from the California Department of Fish and Game that would loosen sport fishing restrictions on the state's striped bass, a popular game fish, has stoked a blaze of anger among fishermen, conservationists, and scientists. The proposal made earlier this month stems from a settlement in a lawsuit filed in 2008 against Fish and Game by a group of agricultural interests who want more water from the fragile Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta.

The group, the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, argues that striped bass — a species introduced to the state in 1879 — has had a substantial negative effect on Sacramento River Chinook salmon by preying on the juveniles and that Fish and Game must cull the number of bass to help restore struggling salmon populations. The agricultural interests maintain that the bass are partially responsible for the Chinook salmon collapse in the last decade.

But fishery scientists say striped bass haven't actually played any substantial role in the Chinook's struggles. Peter Moyle, a professor of fisheries at UC Davis, said that striped bass have been falsely implicated and used as a scapegoat for environmental damage caused mostly by the over-pumping of water from the delta. "There is no relationship between salmon numbers and striped bass numbers," Moyle said.

Other experts agree, including David Ostrach, formerly a colleague of Moyle's at UC Davis. "Striped bass and salmon and delta smelt all coexisted and thrived together until the 1960s, and these fish all concurrently declined when they turned on the switch of the water projects," Ostrach said.

The argument over bass has turned into a heated debate, with fishermen and the scientific community on one side and agricultural interests on the other. After two failed legislative attempts in 2009 and 2010 by Southern California water users to force Fish and Game to allow more striped bass to be killed, the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, which is backed largely by agricultural users of the delta's water, sued. The settlement requires that Fish and Game propose a rewrite of the daily bag and size limits on striped bass.

Currently, the daily sport fishing bag limit on striped bass is two fish, and any striped bass less than eighteen inches long must be released alive. The proposed regulations would allow sport fishermen to keep as many as six per day while dropping the size limit to twelve inches. The proposed regulations must still be reviewed by the Fish and Game Commission, a five-person panel, at a public meeting in December in San Diego.

Marty Gingras, a Fish and Game biologist, said the proposed regulations are explicitly intended to reduce numbers of striped bass. But if the Fish and Game Commission rejects the proposed regulations, then the matter is over, according to Gingras.

However, if the commission accepts and the regulations eventually take effect, what will happen is unclear. Bay Point party boat fishing captain Jim Cox — also the president of the West Delta Chapter of the California Striped Bass Association — is worried that the scheme could work too well and that striped bass could be mostly wiped out, causing great harm to the state's sport fishing business while leaving the bay and the delta's greater environmental problems unsolved. Cox said he would maintain an unofficial two-bass limit for his fishing clients if the bag limit is boosted. "But I know boat captains who would love to have advertising pictures with their deck covered with striped bass," he said.

Moyle, though, doubts the proposed regulations could have a detrimental impact on bass numbers. He thinks the proposal serves more as a political gesture to agricultural interests. Moyle expects that most avid and conscientious fishermen will not kill six striped bass per day even if the law permits it. But Moyle acknowledged that "subsistence bank fishermen" might keep all the striped bass they're allowed. "But bank fishermen aren't very effective at catching many striped bass," he said. "Anyway, once fishing gets bad, people stop fishing."

Ostrach, however, pointed out that striped bass are known to contain relatively high levels of mercury. The California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment posts official warnings about eating striped bass in excess. "Now, by telling people to go and eat almost all the striped bass they want, the State of California is encouraging people to eat a toxic fish," Ostrach said. Low-income fishermen in the delta, he said, may be the most likely anglers to take advantage of loosened restrictions and the most likely demographic to wind up ingesting more mercury. "This is a huge social justice issue and that alone should stop this thing in its tracks," he said.

Gingras of Fish and Game said the department's official stance is that "striped bass have an adverse effect on the [threatened and endangered] species in the bay and delta." But environmentalists suspect that the department and its biologists have simply caved into political and legal pressures. "We think they've had orders from above to do this," said John Beuttler, the conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Cox agreed: "This was a decision made by the legal end of Fish and Game, not its biologists."

Ostrach and Moyle both assert that no credible data exists showing that striped bass predation has ever had a significant impact on salmon numbers. They say that predation occurs substantially only in several isolated "hotspots" where pumps, levees, and artificial sloughs create a confusing network of waterways in which striped bass easily ambush wayward salmon smolts.

One of these sites is the Clifton Court Forebay, a large reservoir at the south end of the delta that includes one of two major pumping stations. When salmon are drawn into this slough, mortality rates due to striped bass predation can range from 78 to 99 percent, according to Gingras. To alleviate this situation, the fishing regulations could include a twenty-fish daily bag limit on striped bass in and around the Clifton Court Forebay, Gingras said.

A spokesman for the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, Matt Mahon, said, "We're pleased with the proposal. We believe it's a responsible and balanced outcome ... that will bring striped bass numbers to more manageable levels."

The Fish and Game Commission will review the proposed regulations on December 14 and 15 in San Diego at a meeting open to the public. Many Bay Area fishermen have expressed frustration that the meeting is to be held at a location so far from the region of affected anglers and fishes. "To locate the meeting in San Diego completely ignores the area of origin of the problem," said Dick Pool, a Concord fisherman and president of the environmental organization Water4Fish.org. "This is unbelievably inconvenient."

Pool is among many who believe that people with a financial interest in seeing delta water flow southward into farm fields and distant municipalities have scapegoated striped bass as a tactic to divert public attention from water pumping in the delta. "And I'm afraid it's starting to work," he said. "I'm afraid the general public just doesn't understand what's going on here."

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