Agriculture

Farm Beat: Salmon predation issue has new twists

A juvenile salmon is removed from the stomach of a striped bass during a study on whether predation by the non-native bass is interfering with efforts to protect the native salmon. The photo was taken on the Tuolumne River near Waterford, Calif., on May 2, 2012. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which use the river, argue that controlling predators would be preferable to requiring them to release more water into the river for salmon.
A juvenile salmon is removed from the stomach of a striped bass during a study on whether predation by the non-native bass is interfering with efforts to protect the native salmon. The photo was taken on the Tuolumne River near Waterford, Calif., on May 2, 2012. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which use the river, argue that controlling predators would be preferable to requiring them to release more water into the river for salmon. Fishbio

The photo with this column can’t help but draw your eyes. It shows a baby salmon being removed from the gut of a non-native bass that preyed upon it on the Tuolumne River.

Irrigation districts have used the shot in claiming that predator control would serve the native salmon better than boosting releases from their reservoirs into lower river stretches.

The proposal, much questioned by environmental and bass fishing groups, had a pair of new developments in recent days. Several districts and their business allies filed a petition June 9 to increase the state’s catch limits on striped and black bass. And a congressional committee voted Wednesday for a bill that would end the federal mandate to double striper numbers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. I mentioned it in my April 10 story on the predation issue, which included the salmon-inside-a-bass photo. It was taken by Fishbio, an Oakdale-based consulting firm that works with irrigation districts and other clients.

Advocates for reducing bass say it would be far cheaper and more effective than increasing the amount of water released for salmon in the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin rivers. They warn of lost jobs and income if this water did not go to farms and cities.

Environmental leaders have told me that predation is one of several stresses on salmon: They also contend with degraded spawning grounds and water that can be too warm and polluted.

The California Striped Bass Association joins the call for higher flows. It argues that the bass – an East Coast native believed to have been first planted in California in 1879 – can coexist with salmon with proper river management. And it says increasing the catch limit would do long-term damage to a sport fishery that has its own benefits to the economy.

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance did a blog post in response to my April story. It acknowledged that “photos of captured stripers disgorging baby salmon are particularly dramatic,” but the problem lies mostly with low flows.

The daily limit on striped bass would rise from two to six fish under the petition to the California Fish and Game Commission. It also would reduce the size limit from 18 to 12 inches. For black bass, the catch limit would go from five to 10 fish and the size limit from 12 to 8 inches.

The petition is similar to a 2012 effort that failed to sway the commission. All five of its seats have had new appointees since then.

The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority is among the petitioners this time. It includes the Modesto, Turlock, Merced, South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts, along with San Francisco, which draws from the Tuolumne.

The Denham bill won a unanimous vote at the House Natural Resources Committee and next goes to the full House of Representatives.

By the numbers

  • Daily limit on striped bass for sport fishermen: 2
  • Limit proposed by groups that claim heavy predation by bass on salmon: 6
  • Daily limit on black bass: 5
  • Limit if predation-related petition is granted: 10
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