Sportfish: A Convenient Scapegoat for a Complex Problem

By Andy Treharne, Senior Director, Federal Land Policy/Western States, Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation

In places where native fish populations have declined, proposals to remove non-native sportfish have been touted by some as an effective method to boost diminishing populations of native species, such as salmon. Proponents of this type of management argue that introduced sportfish species, such as striped, smallmouth, and largemouth bass, prey upon native species, thereby hampering population recovery. However, there is often very little scientific evidence to suggest that introduced sportfish are driving the decline of native fisheries, or that their removal would have an appreciable impact on their recovery. In places like the Sacramento / San-Joaquin River Delta in California, some have blamed the precipitous decline of Delta smelt and Coho salmon on introduced bass species. Not only is there scant evidence to suggest that this is the case, researchers at University of California, Davis, point out that removing bass may have a negative impact on native species, as they prey more heavily on salmon’s other aquatic predators. Meanwhile, assigning blame to non-native predation ignores a wide array of factors that contribute to the decline in native fish populations, including drought, warmer water temperatures, and habitat loss, among others. Considering that striped bass have coexisted with salmon since the late 1800s, it doesn’t take a biologist to see that these variables are influencing changes to the fishery more than the presence of sportfish that have resided in the Delta for more than a hundred years. Efforts to address these declines should focus on factors conclusively linked to this complex ecological issue, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Just last year, a group called the “Coalition for a Sustainable Delta” petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to decrease size limits and increase bag limits on striped bass and black bass fishing under the guise of protecting native salmon. In addition, Congress last year passed the WIIN Act, which contained provisions requiring the federal government to remove largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass from Delta fisheries with only a vague stipulation that federal agencies “collaborate” with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (think about how you’d feel if Congress passed a law requiring federal agencies to cull turkeys outside their native range, even if your state fish and wildlife agency objected).

These proposals fail to take into account the myriad economic benefits of introduced sportfish. Species like bass are enormous economic drivers, and generate many millions of dollars for conservation through license sales and excise taxes paid on fishing tackle and motorboat fuel. In California alone, well over a million people fish each year, generating $4.6 billion in economic activity, and over $334 million in state and local taxes. California’s bass fishery, widely regarded as one of the best in the country, accounts for a significant portion of that income.

We live in challenging times where natural resource issues are complex, multi-faceted and impact a wide variety of interests. With that in mind, it’s important that these interests come together, understand trade-offs and advocate for solutions that are founded in a true understanding of the factors that impact shared resources. If sportsmen and women sit by quietly while others influence decision making with half-truths or outright falsehoods, we’ll not only fail to solve real problems, we’ll also risk losing the things you can’t put a price tag on. 

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