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Saving salmon by killing off other fish 

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010
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Between August and November 2009, fall-run Chinook salmon swam through the Golden Gate and up the Sacramento River to spawn in the lowest numbers ever recorded. To most fishermen, it's obvious what happened to the once-abundant fishery: Too much water is being pumped out of the river delta for irrigation of farmland to the south, a water transport system well-documented by researchers to kill juvenile fish.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service has named a different culprit in the salmon population's decline: predatory striped bass.

In a May 13 letter to the state Fish and Game Commission, federal fisheries regulators alleged that the popular game fish introduced from the East Coast in the late 19th century is preying upon juvenile salmon in the delta at unsustainable rates. Federal regulators' solution? They're recommending that the daily bag limit of two striped bass per fisherman and minimum size limit of 18 inches head to tail be scrapped to encourage depletion of the species.

Jacky Douglas, veteran captain of the San Francisco sportfishing charter boat Wacky Jacky, believes bass have nothing to do with the debacle. "The salmon will only come back if they give them water," says Douglas, whose business depends on both striped bass and salmon.

But Delta farmers have campaigned against surrendering their water rights for years, and critics suspect that recent attempts to pin the collapse of the Chinook salmon fishery on striped bass is just a diversionary tactic.

"Farmers just want to push the salmon collapse onto something else so that they can keep pumping all our water into their fields," says Erik Anfinson, a San Francisco boat captain who, like Douglas, takes paying clients on sportfishing trips. His suspicions are shared by fisheries biologists like David Ostrach, a striped-bass expert and independent researcher in Woodland. Ostrach, formerly of UC Davis, believes that the antibass campaign is a political ploy.

"There is absolutely no credible science that shows that striped bass or any other predators are adversely stressing the ecosystem," he says, pointing out that millions of Chinook salmon and striped bass coexisted for more than a century before salmon numbers took their current nosedive.

Already, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water districts have lent strong support for two failed Assembly bills since 2009 that sought to lift all protective fishing regulations from striped bass on the pretense of facilitating the salmon's recovery.

But now the federal government is pushing the same package — a change of direction mostly overlooked by the media.

"Either these [government biologists] are very misinformed, or else they're in cahoots with the people who want all of Northern California's water," says Keith Fraser, owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop in San Rafael.

Howard Brown, acting Central Valley office supervisor with the Fisheries Service, conceded that construction of dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and pumping the delta's water into farm fields may be the primary culprits. However, he says, there may be no time to remove dams or settle years-long water disputes, and the easiest fix for now is to boot the bass from San Francisco Bay.

But whether wiping out stripers will fix anything is uncertain — and Anfinson warns that the eradication will only kill the Bay Area's remaining sportfishing industry. "We'll be belly up."

About The Author

Alastair Bland

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