California Fishy Tales

A bill is about to be introduced into the California Assembly (AB 1253) to change the striped bass, which was introduced into the San Francisco Bay estuary from the East Coast 1879, from a game species to a non-game species. This would make it open season for people to catch as many stripers as they want, whenever and wherever they can, like carp. Sounds like fun, except that presumably the goal of the bill is to wipe them out.

Such legislation and other attacks on transplanting species of fish and wildlife is a cause for reflection on what resource management is all about.

In the l950's an invasion of lamprey eels decimated indigenous steelhead and lake trout populations in the Great Lakes. With the local salmonoids nearly gone, there was an empty niche at the top-level of the aquatic food chain. Meanwhile, small, silvery alewives also snuck into the Great Lakes and exploded in numbers because there was is nothing to eat them, except for growing numbers of cormorants that never used to be found there. Huge piles of smelly rotten alewives began to pile up on beaches.

Ralph McMullen was head of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in those days. He had the bold idea to plant Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes to fill the empty niche, gobble up alewives and boost sagging sport fisheries. The Pacific salmon did not really find the local spawning habitat to their taste, so the salmon population was sustained by hatcheries. In time, lake, brown and rainbow trout populations have come back in the Great Lakes, and the salmon are there, too, rubbing fins with them. Sure some salmon eat baby trout, but vice versa.

With some wisdom, guts and applied resource management, the Great Lakes ecosystem has become a more efficient user of available habitat, benefiting man and nature.

An similar situation is the introduction into the US of the Chinese ring-necked pheasant and the Middle Eastern chukar partridge — foreign game birds that filled empty ecological niches — created an asset that pumps money into the economy, makes sportsmen happy, feeds people, and does not damage natural ecosystems. It's called pragmatic ecology.

Fast forward to 2009. California sportsmen are not able to enjoy trout fishing in many locations this year because of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity that blocks planting non-native species in lakes and streams until environmental impact statements can be done to insure that stocking trout will not negatively impact native fish and frogs. Over 170 lakes have been affected. No planting is expected until 2010, when the impact statements will be done.

Trout planting has been going on in California for as much as a century. No significant damage to any species has been caused by stocking to date, and the benefits of the sportfishing opportunities generated by stocking far outweigh any costs, economic or ecological.

To be sure, you have to be careful when you introduce new species into an ecosystem. Think of the nightmares of exotic species like nutria, kudzu, starlings, water hyacinths, quagga mussels, zebra mussels, mitten crabs, lamprey eels, etc. in the US; gray squirrels in UK; and rabbits and cane toads in Australia. All are well-meaning but shortsighted transplants that have seriously hurt native species and the ecosystems that support them.

California recently has had to spend millions to try to keep northern pike out of the Sacramento River system. In the Great Lakes and elsewhere, pike seem to get along just fine with trout and other sport fish, but the voracious pike, who were brought in illegally and released into Lake Davis, would surely have made a serious impact on the Sacramento River system that is already troubled if they escaped from Lake Davis.

What makes stopping trout stocking in California lakes seem hard to fathom is that trout (except for browns) are native in the state, although maybe not in a specific lake or stream. Even if people don't transplant fish, nature steps in. When aquatic birds like gulls, kingfishers, ducks, geese and cormorants fly from lake to lake, they can and do spread fertile fish eggs in the process because the fertile eggs stick to bird feathers. This is how mountain lakes got trout in the first place.

So, let's see, it's okay if birds bring in the eggs, just not people. Right? Did anyone check that cormorant to see if it had filed an impact statement to fly from one lake to the next?

Resource management is about working with natural systems and human politics. And politics seems to muddy waters a lot these days. Words like "sustainable," "endangered species," and "biodiversity" get used in many different ways to justify things that would make Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold turn over in their graves.

The striped bass population of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River has already dropped to a 1/3 of what it was a few years ago, at least in part due to water diversions and habitat destruction. If you make stripers non-game fish, what about largemouth and smallmouth bass that have also been planted in the Sacramento Delta, and taken hold in numbers sufficient to support pro bass tournaments? They could also be declared exotics, too. Is it better to have an ecosystem with a lot of empty niches, or to have that ecosystem maximizing its productivity?

To get the point, a species may not be native to a lake or region, but if it is native nearby, it could be transplanted by nature, as well as by human hands. If it comes in by birds, it's okay, but if it comes in by planting it's wrong? I don't get that reasoning, especially if the niche is open.

Forget about delisting striped bass. That's ultimately a ploy to help justify diverting more water from the Delta into agriculture, anyways. They eventually would have swam around South America to get here or been carried on the feathers of migrating waterfowl, anyways. Man just speeded things up a little by bringing in some overland in buckets.

Incidentally, as predicted earlier, the ocean salmon season in California is again closed. Biologists are debating why the sudden decline in the Sacramento River fall run of chinooks from nearly a million fish a year to about 66,000 last fall. Ocean currents, global warming, El Nino, pollution, poaching, and habitat destruction are all suspected. The biologists obviously have not seen the blockbuster animated feature film, "Monsters Versus Aliens" currently in theaters. In the movie, a huge alien robot probe tries to take out the Golden Gate Bridge, only to be foiled by a woman named "Susan" who has been made 100' tall by exposure to a meteorite.

Susan saves the day and the bridge by defeating the evil robot, whose remains fall into the middle of the main channel of the Golden Gate where salmon pass from the ocean to get into San Francisco Bay.

So, if you want the California salmon population to get back up to where it should be and keep stripers sport fish, let's get rid of the carcass of that alien robot that's blocking the fish from swimming upstream, and send the 100' tall "Susan" to Sacramento to lobby on behalf of sport fish.

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.