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Predator fish that anglers love faces uncertain future in California water wars

Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Outdoors

In California's never-ending water and fish wars, the striped bass doesn't get nearly the publicity as its celebrity counterparts, the endangered Chinook salmon and Delta smelt.

Yet the striped bass is at the heart of a protracted fight over California's water supply, 140 years after the hard-fighting fish, beloved by anglers, was introduced here from the East Coast.

Wealthy agricultural and Southern California urban water interests, tired of seeing their Central Valley water supplies reduced to protect native fish, have been quietly waging a war against the bass because they prey on hatchling salmon and adult smelt. They've repeatedly tried to introduce legislation or change regulations that would reduce the numbers of striped bass from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Time and again, though, their efforts have been thwarted by opposition from sport fishing associations and fisheries scientists who say the fish that anglers call "stripers" are being used as a "scapefish" to deflect attention from the profound ecological problems caused by too much water getting pumped from Central Valley rivers to farms and cities.

These battles show no signs of ending. And the latest fight is underway.

Next month, the five-member California Fish and Game Commission could decide to remove a decades-old state policy that sought to dramatically increase the numbers of striped bass to benefit the fishing industry.

 

The vote comes after years of lobbying from farming groups and urban water associations that have sought to reduce the numbers of hungry striped bass to benefit salmon and smelt.

They argue that with fewer stripers eating endangered fish, regulators wouldn't impose nearly as many restrictions on the massive Delta pumping stations that send farms and south state cities water. As it stands now, the pumps are often throttled back at key times of year to protect endangered fish. Farmers say the real predator is the striped bass, not their water pumps.

Striped bass are named for the parallel stripes that span their silver and white flanks. The voracious fish can weigh as much as 60 pounds and grow more than two feet in length.

Anglers have swarmed commission meetings in recent months protesting the proposal. They argue removing California's striped bass population targets is a critical first step that would lead the eradication of the popular sport fish from Central Valley rivers and Delta waterways. They say if the state officially removes a population goal it could lead to the fish dying off outright from habitat loss or through intentional removal via nets or other means.

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