State fights itself over fish, but we could be the real losers

As gestures go, declaring striped bass a “native species” of California was a real laugher.

Fearing someone might develop a case of sanity around a fish that thrives by eating actual native species like salmon, smelt and trout, the outgoing president of California’s Fish & Game Commission acted unilaterally on the bass’s behalf. He made them all freshwater citizens of California.

By declaring striped bass a “native species,” Jim Kellogg was trying to give his beloved bass the same standing as the true natives that bass eat.

Fortunately, Kellogg and his overreach left the commission last January. Unfortunately, his legacy lives on in staffers and thousands of his fishing pals. That flawed legacy could well deny those who rely on our rivers the best opportunity to ensure both the survival of endangered species and thousands of jobs in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.

Bass were introduced into the Delta over a century ago because they’re fun to catch. Since then, the state has pampered these predators with rules guaranteed to create more and bigger bass. Catch a bass less than 18 inches, throw it back so it can feast on more smelt and grow. Catch two, you’re done; mustn’t decrease the population.

“We all know big fish eat little fish; it’s simple,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta. “We know (commission) policies are designed to increase both the number and size of (bass). … The problem is that what they’re eating are the endangered native species.”

The Coalition represents San Joaquin Valley water users south of the Delta and along the west side. It wanted to show commissioners emerging scientific proof that bass have decimated salmon and smelt populations and they’re also eating tons of trout. Worse, they’ve moved out of the Delta and farther up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to feed. The lower Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced are already infested with bass.

Among those to testify was Doug Demko, an avid fisherman and biologist with 25 years experience on rivers all over the world but with special expertise on the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus. There was also support from state and federal regulators who long ago reached the same conclusion – bass are killing protected species.

Knowing what was coming, commission staff – with their bass-are-best mindset – submitted a hands-off recommendation before the meeting began. Their fishing buddies chimed in, too. So state commissioners put a 10-minute limit on the coalition’s presentation.

Ten minutes to debunk decades of faulty science with fresh data. Ten minutes to examine the illogical premise that only more water will save native species. Ten minutes to give protected smelt, steelhead trout and salmon a fighting chance. Boccadoro saw the futility and canceled. But he didn’t give up.

Unequivocally, salmon and trout need more and colder water. But their plummeting numbers cannot be explained without considering predation.

Go to any wide spot on any river and watch the bass jump. As our rivers warm, bass swim farther upstream to feast on endangered babies.

Here’s the problem. Denied a means of limiting bass, federal regulators have but one tool to save protected fish – flow control. They were forced to turn off the Delta pumps, cutting flows into San Luis Reservoir, which is 90 percent empty despite above-average rain. It’s why New Melones is only a quarter full while nearby Don Pedro is two-thirds full.

Meanwhile, a different state agency is preparing to demand more water from our rivers. The State Water Resources Control Board insists it’s the only way to save endangered salmon and steelhead. If that’s true, it’s because the Fish & Game Commission repeatedly refuses to allow more bass to be caught – preferring to blame salmon and steelhead losses entirely on “degraded habitat.”

So the same “degraded habitat” that has decimated salmon has had the opposite effect on predator species such as bass who live in the exact same habitat. Trout and salmon are disappearing, but bass are everywhere. Are bass immune to whatever is making natives disappear? Or will more water just result in more bass?

Until that’s answered, don’t expect anyone here to acquiesce to the state’s demands – especially as various state bureaucrats work at cross-purposes.

This week, 20 legislators – including Sen. Anthony Cannella and assemblymembers Adam Gray and Kristin Olsen – urged the Fish & Game Commission to revisit its bass limits. The commission got the same request in 2015 from the chief deputy director of the Department of Water Resources and several federal agencies. They wanted “greater fishing pressure” on bass to “reduce predation of … (fish) protected under the Endangered Species Act.” As usual, Kellogg et. al. refused. But now there are four new commissioners.

The day after Boccadoro canceled his 10-minute appearance, he crashed the commission’s public-comment portion and got a better reception. He isn’t asking to eradicate bass, just increase daily limit to four and lower the keeper size.

We’d prefer more robust changes, but mostly we want our state agencies to work together. Fish & Game should help, not fight, state and federal groups trying to save native fish. And they should expedite, not thwart, the work of scientists like Demko. Relying entirely on flows to save salmon and steelhead will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in our area – then fail.

We’re concerned about the survival of salmon and trout, just as we’re concerned about the survival of everyone who depends on our rivers.