Striped Bass Vilified in California
by Robert Deen
Striped bass have been a coveted game fish in California since they were introduced from the East Coast in 1879. But the scrappy fighters are increasingly caught up in the Golden State’s big money, high stakes water wars – who should get it, when and how much.
Powerful agricultural interests argue – and have sued the state – to have stripers stripped of their game fish status – removing all limits and restrictions and encouraging their eradication. But scientists and anglers claim stripers are being used as “scapefish” to distract attention from problems caused by massive diversion of water south through the Sacramento – San Joaquin Bay Delta.
Why do farmers care about fish? The problem is that water allocation decisions are often made on the basis of fish populations in the Delta – particularly Chinook salmon. Water that could go to crops is often allowed to flow out to sea naturally to help smolts make it through the Delta. When water is diverted for other uses, the delta becomes difficult for the young fish to pass through. Rather than “waste” water, many farmers claim it makes more sense to eliminate predator fish – particularly stripers – that feast on the fingerlings as they pass through.
Massive pumping stations that send water south to central valley farms also suck small fish into their systems, which many maintain are a bigger threat than stripers. Fishermen and others point out that all fish species are declining in the Delta – including stripers – and that water management decisions are the problem. Altogether, though, the evidence shows that both stripers and water use are threatening the young salmon.
Fall salmon runs on the Sacramento are not yet endangered, but the winter and spring runs are virtually gone. State and federal officials are driven by endangered species law to give high priority to increasing their numbers. Recently a million Chinook smolts were released from hatcheries, and many of these are ending up as food for striped bass – and many other predators.
California Fish & Wildlife has tried using electrical systems to stun stripers and other non-native predatory fish in the Delta, in an effort to increase survival rates of young salmon and steelhead. Captured fish are moved to areas where they will have less impact. Given the broad distribution of stripers in California, and the expense of this technique, it’s doubtful whether it would be practical on a large-scale basis. Thousands of anglers currently pursue striped bass in California, and encouraging them to keep their catch could put a real dent in the striper’s numbers while sparing the public a multi-million dollar expense.
Unable to get satisfaction at the state level – despite lawsuits and proposed legislation – farmers have taken the fight to the federal government. Congressman Jeff Denham, a Republican from the Central Valley farming region of Turlock, in February introduced a bill in Washington titled the “Save Our Salmon” Act of 2016, designed to reduce the number of stripers in the Delta.
“Our devastating drought has been made worse annually by the Obama administration in conjunction with environmental extremists who prioritize fish over families,” said Rep. Denham. “Yet they push out millions of acre-feet and fail to address predator species, which their own estimates have shown eat 98 percent of endangered fish species. We must stop the crazy cycle of spending money on both the fish we want to save and the fish that kill them.”
Valued game fish, or a villainous invasive predator that threatens endangered species? Whoever wins that argument will settle the future of striped bass fishing in California. You decide.