Appetite for extinction

Critics say bill to eliminate striped bass regulations is red herring

Striped bass can live up to 30 years, grow more than 6 feet long and weigh as much as 125 pounds. They have co-existed with salmon in the Delta for more than a century.

Striped bass can live up to 30 years, grow more than 6 feet long and weigh as much as 125 pounds. They have co-existed with salmon in the Delta for more than a century.

PHOTO by U.S. DepARTMENT of fish and wildlife

Sometimes, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind. Take Bakersfield Republican Assemblywoman Jean Fuller. She believes chinook salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are threatened with extinction mainly because striped bass are eating them. So she’s introduced legislation that would eliminate all regulations, protection and habitat improvement for striped bass, in order to knock the nonnative species into regional extinction and save the salmon.

But critics of Fuller’s legislation, including biologists and fishing groups, note that “stripers” and chinook salmon have thrived side by side for much of the 20th century. They claim the enormous pumps in the Delta that deliver water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are the primary cause of the salmon’s decline, and say Assembly Bill 2336 is merely a red herring designed to distract the public from that.

John Beuttler, conservation director with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, considers the bill merely a political tactic.

“This attack is simply another way to misdirect the government away from the real impacts associated with the development and export of the Delta water supplies,” Beuttler wrote in a statement dated March 8.

Biologists who have studied the Delta’s ecosystem for years also say the bill is based on false presumptions. Dr. Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at UC Davis, says there is no evidence indicating that striped bass have ever posed a serious threat to fishes native to the Bay-Delta system.

“Even when the smelt were abundant, striped bass weren’t eating them,” said Moyle, who has analyzed stomach contents of many striped bass taken from waters populated by salmon and smelt. “They do sometimes eat salmon, but they mostly get hatchery fish. No biologist who understands the Delta system would argue that [predation by stripers on chinook salmon and Delta smelt] is a valid point.”

But Doug Demko does. As a biologist with the fisheries consulting firm FishBio working for water districts in the San Joaquin Valley, Demko says that scientists who fail to find salmon in the stomachs of striped bass just aren’t sampling from the right places. He says that at Clifton Court Forebay, for example, an average of 85 percent of salmon that pass by the state water pumps are eaten by striped bass.

“Fish are getting killed by other fish, not the pumps,” said Demko, though he acknowledges that the pumps themselves can draw juvenile salmon where they otherwise wouldn’t go, like backwaters inhabited by striped bass. He calls the water-delivery system in the southern Delta “partially culpable” for the decline of the chinook salmon.

A.B. 2336 is a near-replicate of a bill introduced by Fuller 12 months ago, with the same stated objective: to eradicate striped bass and help save the chinook salmon. Demko spoke publicly in support of that bill, which was ultimately rejected by the Assembly’s Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, which will review Fuller’s new legislation sometime in April.

Other supporters of last year’s bill included the Kern County Water Agency, the Modesto Irrigation District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Friant Water Authority and the Eastern Municipal Water District. These San Joaquin Valley water users are now backing Assembly Bill 2336.

Skeptics are suspicious.

“In my opinion, this bill is a public diversion to gain more water for corporate agriculture at the expense of the public and the environment of California,” said Dr. David Ostrach, a research scientist and striped bass expert who worked until last spring at UC Davis.

A March 11 statement from Fuller’s office conceded that water pumping has played a role in the Delta’s environmental problems but stressed that promotion of nonnative predators as valued game fish has contributed to the fisheries’ declines. But chinook salmon and Delta smelt aren’t the only species in the river system now failing, Dr. Ostrach points out; numbers of striped bass themselves have plummeted.

“In fact, the best indicator of a healthy ecosystem would be to have a healthy striped bass population,” said Ostrach. “With them crashing, it indicates that we have a serious problem in water management.”

Moyle doubts that lifting all regulations on striped bass would lead to the species’ disappearance, anyway, and he also feels that encouraging the consumption of a fish known to contain high levels of mercury is irresponsible and becomes “a social justice issue.”

“But these people are willing to say anything except that the pumps are the big problem,” said Moyle. “This bill is a ploy.”