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California stripers: good or evil?

People wearing black and white striped clothes are generally referees or convicts. Fish that sport the same pattern, striped bass, are either one of of the great sport fishes, or according to a bill recently introduced into the California Assembly, an evil monster that needs to be eradicated.

When the first streams of white people crossed the Sierras and settled in the San Francisco Bay area, they found abundant steelhead and salmon in the Sacramento River system and in the ocean, but none of their favorite East Coast fish — striped bass.

Firm and tasty flesh, good fighter, prolific breeder in the right conditions, and very catchable on just about anything that looks like a minnow or small fish, striped bass are a fisherman's dream.

So, in 1879, 132 fingerling striped bass were carted by train from the Navesink River in New Jersey and released into the San Francisco Bay. Three years later, another 300 fingerling striped bass made the coast-to-coast trip.

Stripers found an empty niche in the food chain of the Bay-Delta region, and their population quickly took off. By 1889 the population of striped bass in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River had grown so much that it was sufficient to support a commercial fishery that lasted until it was closed in 1935 when striped bass were declared a sport fish.

Stripers are originally anadromous, spawning in freshwater but living the rest of the lives in brackish or saltwater. The Sacramento River and Delta are prime spawning grounds in California.

Stripers spawn in water 61-69 degrees from April thru mid-June. Then they move down into brackish and salt water. Sustainable populations can also be established in freshwater if there are tributaries with moving water where the fish can spawn.

The California state record striped bass is 78 pounds, caught in 1910 by a commercial fisherman. The sport record is 67 ½ pounds — caught in O'Neil Forebay — freshwater reservoir.

In the 1960s, it was estimated there were three million striped bass in the Sacramento Delta. By the 1990s, the population had shrunk to 750,000 . Recent estimates have dropped to 300,000, although the bite in the Bay and Delta is still pretty decent.

Right now a lot of folks are having good luck with shiners throughout San Francisco Bay, according to Keith Fraser at Loch Lomond Live Bait in San Rafael.

What happened to the most successful large fish transplant in the Bay-Delta history?

The same refrain that has been heard for salmon: water diversions — the State Water Project and The Federal Central Valley Project, resulting in reduced water outflows; unscreened pumps that suck up and kill young bass and salmon; water pollution from industrial and urban discharges, fertilizers and pesticides; toxic chemicals and trace elements; dredging and soil disposal that silts over eggs and organisms; poaching; exotic aquatic organisms; Bay-fill projects; commercial Bay shrimp fishery; and diseases and parasites.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, which is the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast, has its problems, symptoms of which include dramatic declines in the king salmon run in the Sacramento River, and the Delta smelt, which is on the Endangered Species List.

These problems were spotlighted by the recent Salmon Summit held in San Francisco.

As if the stripers did not have enough problems, California Assembly Bill 2336 introduced by Assemblywoman Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield), calls for establishing a new Delta Stewardship Council to develop a new management plan for the Bay-Delta.

This sounds good, but if you read further, it also calls for the abolition of protection for striped bass, (a non-native, and therefore "invasive species").

The author of the bill believes stripers need to be culled to reduce predation on salmon smolts that pass through the Delta, and the endangered Delta smelt. Reducing or removing the striped bass will take the blame for declines in salmon and smelt away from pumping water from the Delta for agriculture, Fuller believes, thereby freeing up more water for agricultural and industrial demands.

According to the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, "even though this (bill) would virtually destroy the fishery, the author alleges this is necessary to reduce striped bass predation on salmon and Delta smelt protected by the state and federal Endangered Species Acts."

According to CSPA Conservation Director John Beuttler, this bill is similar to one Fuller introduced last year that was defeated by a coalition of anglers and fisheries biologists. Scientific testimony provided during that hearing made it clear that striped bass rarely, if ever, eat Delta smelt and that predation on listed salmon is so low that it does not impact the population level.

To me, striped bass in the Bay-Delta region are like salmon that were introduced into the Great Lakes after an invasive species, lamprey eels, decimated native lake trout. Someone realized that there was an empty niche in the food chain that could be filled by a valuable species from someplace else, and the result has been a boon to recreational sport fishing, while the native lake trout population slowly has come back.

Whenever such wise transplants are made, it's crucial to insure that native species are not decimated by the new species. Think what has happened with nutria, kudzu vine, Burmese pythons, starlings, English sparrows, etc.

The Central Valley of Sacramento is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US. Assemblywoman Fuller represents the views of some of those farmers in her district who are making a lot of noise about reduced water diversions from the Delta to feed water hungry Central Valley agriculture. In politics it helps to have a villain, but striped bass are not the bad guys.

Stripers, salmon and smelt have been getting along just fine for over 100 years in the Bay-Delta area. The striped bass fishery has collapsed right along with salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and the other fish dependent on the Bay-Delta, because the Bay-Delta ecosystem has some serious water quality and quantity problems.

Even in its degraded state, the striped bass fishery still manages to generate some $250 million annually to the state economy.

Don't blame the fish! This is a human problem about conflicting water uses.

If you would like to have your thoughts on AB 2336 known, you can take an online survey about striped bass at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/37KRVG7 and find more details on what to do at CSPA website.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.