Water Contractors Launch Another Attack on Striped Bass, Black Bass

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Corporate agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies have launched a new attack in their campaign to eradicate striped bass as they scapegoat the popular gamefish for salmon and Delta smelt declines caused by decades of water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Dleta.

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, the Astroturf group bankrolled by Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoon Stewart Resnick, on June 9 submitted a new petition to the California Fish and Game Commission to raise the bag limit and reduce the size limit on striped bass in an attempt to reduce their population. This time they’ve added black bass as a so-called “predator” to their petition.

The “Coalition” is joined by a who’s who of the state’s agribusiness, water agency and corporate interests, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) 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.

When the water contractors last tried to eradicate striped bass by slashing the size limit and increasing the bag limit, anglers were able to defeat their proposal with a large showing of people at the February 2012 Fish and Game Commission meeting after Fish Sniffer Editor Cal Kellogg and I helped organize a campaign mobilizing over 450 anglers to show up for a CDFW meeting on the issue in Rio Vista in November 2011.

Coalition for a Sustainable Delta spokesman Michael Boccadoro, the president of the Dolphin Group, claimed the purpose of the petition is to “help preserve” Sacramento River Chinook salmon and Delta smelt.

“California families, businesses and farms have sacrificed considerably during this drought to provide water to help preserve salmon and smelt,” Boccadoro stated. “Modifying size and bag limits for striped 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.”

The proposed changes would increase the bag limits and decrease the size limits for black bass and striped bass in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and rivers tributary to the Delta, according to Boccadoro.

The black bass size limit would be decreased from 12 inches to 8 inches and the daily bag limit would be increased from 5 fish to 10 fish.

The striped bass size limit would be decreased from 18 inches to 12 inches and the daily bag limit would be increased from 2 fish to 6 fish.

The Coalition also criticized state regulators for focusing on increased flows and water pumping restrictions while “predation by non-native species has gone largely unaddressed.”

Anglers oppose the proposal because they say it will reduce the population of stripers and black bass and not address the real causes of salmon, Delta smelt and other fish declines – water diversions, overpumping and mismanagement by the state and federal governments.

Dave Hurley of the Allied Fishing Groups explained the gravity of the matter in an action alert to anglers. “Those wanting to blame introduced species for the water contractors’ sins of overpumping the Delta are back on another attack on species that have co-existed in the Delta for over 100 years,” said Hurley.

The petition will be addressed in a hearing at the California Fish and Game Commission meeting on Aug 25 at the Lake Natoma Inn and Conference Center, 702 Gold Lake Dr. Folsom Ca 95630.

The agenda for the meeting is available here: http://fgc.ca.gov/meetings/2016/index.aspx

Prominent scientists disagree strongly with the contention of Boccadaro and the water contractors that the proposed regulations would “help protect” endangered salmon and smelt, pointing out the lack of any peer-reviewed science backing this claim.

“There is NO new peer-reviewed science that would change anything regarding this issue from the last time they tried the regulation change until now,” said David J. Ostrach Ph.D., Chief Scientist of Ostrach Consulting. “There have been some special interest group directed ‘studies’ by the water contractors and their allies, most of which are bogus or focus on hot spots and then expand that notion to the entire estuary e.g. if they’re eating them en masse at the hotspots, they’re eating them everywhere.”

“Most importantly. predation at hot spots and throughout the Delta has not been shown to affect population levels of salmon or endangered species; it is a lower-level stressor. The biggest predators known to affect population levels of endangered species in the system are the state and federal water project pumping operations, where it’s clearly documented that they’ve killed tens of millions of endangered salmon, Delta smelt, striped bass and any other fish that enters Clifton Court Forebay,” said Ostrach.

In fact, Ostrach points out that Dr. Sean Hayes, NOAA’s lead scientist on this topic, made a 45 minute presentation to the State Water Resources Control Board concluding that removing striped bass and other predators from the system would likely not only do no good, but could potentially cause serious harm to endangered species and the ecosystem.

“So the federal agency’s own scientists working on this problem have come to this conclusion, yet his words are twisted to suit the needs of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta and others,” said Ostrach.

Ostrach emphasized that if the Commission does change the regulations so that smaller striped bass are being caught and kept, it would likely cause a decrease in striped bass predation on other fish more dangerous to the endangered species such as the inland silverside.

“If you remove young (up to 3-4-year-old) striped bass by fishing or otherwise reduce their numbers, then the silverside population would increase,” said Ostrach. “The silversides are direct competitors with salmon smolts for the same food sources, and they also are known to eat Delta smelt larvae, juveniles and eggs. This is just one example of how trying to perturb an ecosystem already in collapse would likely make things much worse rather than do anything better,” he said.

A UC Davis study released in May confirms Ostrach’s argument. The study, “Understanding predation impacts on Delta native fishes,” written by Peter Moyle, Andrew Sih, Anna Steel, Carson Jeffres, William Bennett, asked the question: Will endangered fishes, such as Chinook salmon, delta smelt, and longfin smelt, benefit from control of predators, especially of striped bass? (californiawaterblog.com/…)

After a review of the scientific literature and research, their conclusion was “unlikely.”

“It seems unlikely that a large-scale predator removal program focused on striped bass would have a sustainable, measurable effect on populations of its prey species, specifically protected smelts and salmon,” the scientists concluded.

Like Ostrach, they pointed out that predator control can have unintended consequences, including potentially adversely impacting endangered native species.

“For example, reducing striped bass populations might cause an increase in important prey species, such as Mississippi silverside, that prey on delta smelt eggs and larvae. In other words, controlling striped bass may backfire and increase predation on delta smelt,” they wrote.

“Striped bass get blamed for declines of native fishes because they are an abundant, voracious, non-native predator. Yet striped bass have been part of the Delta ecosystem for nearly 150 years, plenty of time for co-adaptation of predator and prey. In periods when delta smelt, longfin smelt, and salmon were abundant in the past, striped bass were much more abundant than they are today, suggesting that the same factors that drive native fish declines are also driving striped bass populations,” the scientists said.

Dr. Ostrach described the petition as “just another diversion by the water contractors and their allies to focus attention on predation rather than the real cause of the demise of the San Francisco Bay Delta ecosystem – mismanaging the water such that we have an environment very much similar to an Arkansas lake where things like egeria /water hyacinth and freshwater species like smallmouth bass largemouth bass can thrive and is not conducive to survival of plants and animals that live in an estuary.”

“The key to stabilizing the Delta would be to restore habitat, restore the appropriate flows to the river system, and in the case of hot spots, reengineer those places that have created a haven for predators rather than trying to do things that simply won’t work like removing the predators and taking them to lakes and out of the system,” he said.

“Don’t blame the fish – blame the structures in engineering and the way they are managed,” he concluded.

The composition of the Fish and Game Commission has changed dramatically since they last addressed this issue – and turned down a petition by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), under pressure by the water contractors, to increase striped bass bag bag limits and decrease size limits. Only one Commissioner – Jacque Carmenin Hostler- has been on the Commission for over two years.

Even more troubling, the two newest Commissioners, Russell Burns of Napa and Peter Silva of Chula Vista, work for or have worked for groups pushing Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels plan, a water grab by the same water contractors that have proposed changing the limits on stripers and black bass.

Burns works as business manager at Operating Engineers Local Union 3, a supporter of the California WaterFix, while Silva served as senior policy advisor at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the sponsors of the petition and one of the leading backers of the Delta Tunnels.

As the water contractors submit their petition, the numbers of Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the estuary, have plummeted to a new low, according to this spring’s CDFW smelt survey. Only thirteen adult Delta Smelt were collected at 8 stations contributing to the index in 2016.

The Delta smelt collapse is part of an overall ecosystem decline driven by water diversions by the federal and state water projects. The CDFW’s 2015 Fall Midwater Trawl demonstrates that, since 1967, populations of striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 98.3, 99.9, 97.7, 98.5 and 93.7 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

The California Striped Bass Association (CSPA) has posted an on line petition to the Fish and Game Commission opposing the Coalition’ s proposal. Their petition can be found at: https://www.change.org/p/california-fish-and-game-commission-save-the-delta-fisheries.

You can also take action to save striped bass and black bass by sending a letter through the Water4Fish website: http://water4fish.org/savebass/

Stewart Resnick, the billionaire funder of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta Astroturf group, is the co-owner with his wife, Lynda, of The Wonderful Company, the largest grower of orchard fruit in the world.

For more information about the Resnicks and their connections with the University of California system, read my piece, “The story that disgraced UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi didn’t want you to read,” at: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/05/22/1529480/-The-story-that-disgraced-UCD-Chancellor-Linda-Katehi-didn-t-want-you-to-read