In California, a huge battle continues to rage, pitting striped bass versus salmon. The basic storyline here is that the decline of native species like Chinook salmon and steelhead is being blamed, at least in part, to predation by non-native fish…most notably, the striped bass.
Who is making these claims? The stewards of the resource, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife? Nope? The salmon fishing industry? Guess again. Save the salmon organizations? Wrong again!
The folks behind the this rhetoric are water contractors and districts in Central and Southern California, who depend on the Sacramento River System for their water supply. Since 2009, there have been three bills introduced the State Legislature that had anti-striped bass language written in. Fortunately, anglers rallied against all of the bills and none passed.
Furthermore in 2011, the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a group of San Joaquin Valley water districts, asserted, that striped bass were harming native species. As part of a settlement agreement stemming from that lawsuit, the CDFW was forced to come up with regulations changes to reduce the number of striped bass in the region. Again, the public’s voice was heard and, in a unanimous decision, State Fish & Game Commissioners voted not to pursue a proposal that would have changed sport fishing regulations related to anadromous striped bass, including increasing bag limits and decreasing size limits.
So far, the stripers and striper anglers have won out, but the water districts are powerful, organized and loaded with money so there will likely be another attack soon.
But what of all this? Is the striper really the enemy of native fish in California? And would eradicating them bring back salmon, steelhead and fish populations?
First off, a little history is in order. According to the CDFW, the initial striper introduction to California took place in 1879, when 132 small bass were brought successfully by rail from the Navesink River in New Jersey and released in upper San Francisco Bay. Fish from this lot were caught within a year near Sausalito, Alameda, and Monterey, and others were caught occasionally at scattered places for several years afterwards.
There was much concern by the Fish and Game Commission that such a small number of bass might fail to establish the species, so a second introduction of about 300 stripers was made in lower Suisun Bay in 1882. In a few years, striped bass were being caught in California in large numbers.
By 1889, a decade after the first group of eastern fish had been released, striped bass were being sold in San Francisco markets. In another 10 years, the commercial net catch alone was averaging well over a million pounds a year. In 1935, however, all commercial fishing for striped bass was stopped in the belief that this would enhance the sport fishery.
The sport fishery took off from there and striped bass have been woven into the fabric of California fishing ever since. Today, they are an immensely popular gamefish and support a huge fishing industry that ranges from Monterey Bay to the south and Red Bluff to the north and all points between — the Sacramento, Feather, American, Yuba, Mokelumne San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers, San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay, Grizzly Bay, the 1,000-miles of Delta and beaches from San Francisco down to to Monterey Bay.
The Current Situation
Since 2006, fall-run Chinook salmon numbers in the the Sacramento-San Joaquin River System have been mostly a epic decline. As recently as 2002, the basin saw nearly 800,000 kings (by the way, the striper numbers were incredible then too) but by 2008, that number had fallen to a record low 59,000! Fall Chinook have bounced back a bit a few years since but, overall, the outlook isn’t good.
Until 2006, California’s fall kings ran in robust numbers — large enough runs that I never once heard any talk about concerns of striped bass predation. Well, when the king runs crashed and fisheries managers and anglers started looking for causes, it wasn’t hard to trace a lot of the system’s problems to massive water exports to the south.
The pumps that suck water from the Delta are so strong that they can reverse the flow of the river, fooling out-migrating salmon smolt into heading “downstream” right into the pumping facilities. There’s so much water being drawn out of the system that the Bay-Delta estuary water quality is extremely compromised, making for very poor rearing conditions. To satiate the southern metropolitan and agricultural district’s enormous appetite for water, the pumps run hard all summer, often leaving rivers low and warm in the fall — and, of course, that makes for poor spawning conditions.
With the ill-effects of the pumps obvious to even the layman, the water contractors and irrigators took to a different tactic — blaming the Chinook’s decline on predation from non-native species. And that’s where the lawsuits and Assembly bills I spoke of earlier came into play.
What of all this? Is there any truth to their claims? Well, as someone who spends more time “in the trenches,” living and breathing this stuff than anyone, I feel uniquely qualified to give you the real on the water story.
Let’s start with predation. I’ll never deny that stripers eat juvenile salmon. The fact is they do. And if you looked at the population trends and saw striped bass numbers were going through the roof while salmon continued to decline, you may have a point.
The reality of the situation, however, is that striped bass numbers are in a free fall, right along with salmon, steelhead, delta smelt and a whole host of other species. The entire system is in collapse! And the common denominator is water…more specifically, the lack thereof. The decline was exacerbated by the drought years of 2012-2016 as well, but the population crash began well before then.
The simple truth is fish need water!!