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Non-Native Fish Threatens States Endangered Species
The Bass Problem
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Increasing the daily bag limit for bass fishing in the Delta and reducing the fish size limit could go a long way to reducing the decline of endangered salmon and smelt while saving water for urban, farm and other environmental uses.

A broad statewide coalition of water users — ranging from the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to associations representing smaller irrigation districts in and around the Delta along with farming and business groups — are petitioning California Fish and Game Commission to modify fishing rules to address the predation of endangered Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, and Delta smelt by non-native predator species such as bass.

The requested fishing regulation charges are as follows:

Black Bass: Decrease the size limit from 12 inches to 8 inches while increasing the daily bag limit from 5 fish to 10 fish.

Striped Bass: Decrease the size limit from 18 inches to 12 inches while increasing the daily bag limit from 2 fish to 6 fish.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta notes the predation of the endangered native salmon, steelhead and smelt by non-native species is well documented and is a major contributing factoring to their dwindling numbers. They cite a 2011 Department of Fish and Game report that concluded “studies of striped bass feeding habits indicate they consume an enormous volume of fish, overlap in their geographic range with the listed species (the endangered Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead), and have historically consumed listed species, at times in very substantial quantities.”

Studies by Fishbio biologists in the Stanislaus River reaffirm the DFG’s conclusion about the impact non-native fish are having on endangered fish species.

Experts for the coalition have noted water policies involving the Delta put in place in 2003 set the stage for the steady decline of threatened species in the Delta.

The policies have essentially created steady water conditions in the Delta throughout most of the year. Many native fish are stressed mainly because bass — a non-native fish — thrives in such steady water conditions. That in turn creates even more predators to kill off the Chinook salmon and other fish.

The survival rate for Chinook salmon is between 2 and 5 percent by the time they reach the western end of the Delta and enter San Francisco Bay.

The coalition notes state regulators have narrowly focused on increased flows and water pumping restrictions while essentially ignoring predation.

“California families, businesses and farms have sacrificed considerably during this drought to provide water to help preserve salmon and smelt,” noted Coalition for a Sustainable Delta spokesperson Michael Boccadoro. “Modifying size and bag limits for striped bass and black bass is an important next step to better protect and begin restoring these endangered species. It is clear that more needs to be done to halt the continuing declines.”

South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Peter Rietkerk noted the coalition is seeking the fishing rules changes to test whether addressing predation can make a difference for endangered species.

Fish flows have been maintained fairly steady during the drought with no improvement for the threatened fish underscoring data that shows such a strategy simply makes the non-native fish thrive while further reducing the numbers of the Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and Delta smelt.

“There has been a lot of water committed during the drought to help fish (and it isn’t working),” Rietkerk noted.

The coalition pointed out water pumping restrictions during the past few months have resulted in more than 1 million acre feet of water being flushed into the ocean in an effort to protect endangered and threatened species. Such water flushing hasn’t solved the problem since it started a decade ago.

A similar measure advanced several years ago was killed after sport fishing groups viewed it as an attempt to eliminate fishing per se.

Rietkerk noted that isn’t the case as the proposal is to see if reducing the numbers of bass by allowing more fishing will improve the survival rates for endangered fish. The goal is to address all needs: the endangered fish, farm and urban water needs, environmental, and allowing fishing to continue.

The sport fishing industry has as many as 112 bass fishing tournaments annually in the Delta. Some of the purses run as high as $100,000.

The petition is based on proactive actions taken by other western states. In recent years, Washington and Oregon have both utilized the approach to reduce the impacts of predation. The Columbia River, running through both Washington and Oregon, is home to federally endangered salmon and steelhead populations that are preyed upon by non-native bass, walleye, and catfish. Removal of size and bag limits of these predators was first implemented by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2015, and more recently approved by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in coordination with Washington’s efforts to protect endangered salmon and steelhead.

The petitioners include Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, California Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, Southern California Water Committee, State Water Contractors, Western Growers Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, Northern California Water Association, and Kern County Water Agency.