Bass vs. salmon: Can they not coexist?

Noreen Clough, B.A.S.S. national conservation director, presented the following speech at an American Fisheries Society conference in Boise, Idaho, April 16. A condensed version was published in the June issue of B.A.S.S. Times. The speech in its entirety is below.

Bass vs. salmon: Is it really either/or?

When asked to speak at this meeting, I knew it would be a challenge, but because I am focusing on the social and economic aspects of bass fishing and conflicts in the Columbia River, I was willing. After all, someone has to speak up in defense of bass anglers, and last time I checked, none of us was a two-headed monster – maybe the “skunk at a garden party,” but still legitimate anglers who deserved to be heard.

I’ll start with a quote:

“The motivation for this workshop was the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife proposal to remove protective creel and size limits from all non-native species, including black bass. The objective is to reduce the number of non-native predators to improve survival of native fish species, primarily juvenile salmonids. B.A.S.S. is sympathetic with the challenges to maintain biological diversity and to preserve cultural heritage by restoring populations of native anadromous salmonids. … However, we do not think de-regulating black bass will achieve the desired objectives.”

– Bruce Shupp, national conservation director, B.A.S.S., in Proceedings of the Workshop on Management Implications of Co-Occurring Native and Introduced Fishes,  Portland, Ore., October 1998

Fast-forward 15 years, and we appear to be right where we started, with Washington state proceeding to do the very thing predicted not to work – I won’t go into all the reasons – but here are two of the reasons: One, bass are not the No. 1 predator on young salmonids. Stomach content studies continue to indicate that the native Northern pikeminnow is the predation problem. Two, bass anglers by and large are catch-and-release anglers, so removing size and bag limits will have almost no effect on take of bass, except perhaps that some “meat” anglers will bag a few small, good eating-size bass along with their bluegill, a practice that will likely let bigger ones grow into a trophy-size fishery.

From where I sit, the larger issue here is short-sighted fisheries managers trying to live in the past by ignoring the facts and the future. Let’s start with fact: Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams have forever altered the Columbia River for salmon – that is, forever, no matter what, no matter how much mitigation, no matter how many millions of hatchery fish, no matter what. It is fact. Bonneville is a damn big dam in the middle of some of the historically best salmon runs in this nation. It is an economic engine for the Pacific Northwest whose population relies on it for electric generation, flood control and navigation, among other things. “Lights out” salmon fishing runs will not take precedence over living with “lights out.”

Furthermore, fisheries managers trying to manage salmon vs. bass (or walleye) are fiddling around the edges – akin to trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Martin, former Oregon fisheries chief and current conservation director for Berkley fishing tackle, has heard about the double-headed tsunami headed our way – global climate change and drastic water shortages. Despite any and all efforts at trying to manage salmon, the great-grandchildren of fisheries managers of today – those who go into our profession – will likely be managing for bass and walleye and going to Canada and Alaska to fish for salmon. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to manage what we currently have, but we should do so in the face of the real change in progress.

Perhaps rather than fiddling with the edges of this issue, we should join in with the folks at U.S. Forest Service and others studying what to do regarding refugia habitats in the face of climate change – such as what happens when huge forest fires continue to rage as they did last year, and will again this year. Streams important to cold water fishes will be forever changed when the cooling vegetative cover burn away time and again. Here is where some important research should be focusing.

But I digress. The point to be made is that it is time for fisheries managers and biologists to recognize that we are all in this together. There is little to be gained by pitting one side against the other in regulation changes that opt for one group of anglers over another. This is especially true given the fact that in the U.S., bass are the most popular gamefish, which means more anglers fish for them than any other target species, which means more license sales and Wallop-Breaux funds are paid by and through those anglers, which means more of fishery management money is provided by them. Which means if you “punish” them with negative regulatory schemes, they will fish elsewhere, taking their license sales and federal aid dollars with them. Which means managers will have less to manage with.

It will also mean sacrificing agency support from warmwater anglers because such a position is clearly anti-warmwater. So if you go this route, you better be very confident that removing bag and/or size limits for black bass will have the desired effect in advancing the conservation of native species. I doubt it will, and now we have Washington State as the test case.

Ecologically, I guess we would all do something different than was done 110 years ago when the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries was established and, eventually, black bass, striped bass, bluegill and other fishes from the Eastern U.S. were brought by fish car to the Pacific Coast. The deed is not only done, but it is now also generating positive benefits recreationally and economically to these states. And, unless I have missed the headlines, while we have seriously altered fisheries in some cases, I dare say we don’t have an ecological disaster from those non-native stockings of the magnitude that was caused by impounding free-flowing river systems.

According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the Census Bureau and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 33.1 million anglers fished 554 million days: 27.5 in fresh water and 8.9 salt water. Total expenditures were $41.8 billion. Excluding the Great Lakes, 84 percent of all freshwater anglers fished in reservoirs, lakes and ponds for 336 million days. In contrast, salmon, which the survey puts in the saltwater category, represent only 700,000 anglers fishing 4 million days. Clearly, whether you like it or not, warmwater anglers are major constituents, paying way more in Wallop-Breaux excise taxes than salmon anglers.

We at B.A.S.S. keep economic figures for our Bassmaster Elite Series and Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open professional tournaments – which bring anywhere from $1 to $2 million into a local economy from a week-long tournament visit by B.A.S.S. Also, B.A.S.S. members in Washington, Oregon and Idaho total 11,250 anglers. Add in California and you have 41,442 total. That’s a significant number of license dollars that help you do your fisheries management work.

Bass and walleye offer opportunity at a level that could never be attained by native species, so why are fisheries managers and others in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and elsewhere trying to turn the back the clock on fish and fishing opportunity when the rest of the world clock is racing forward? Is it really bass vs. salmon? Where introduced sportfish are well-established – and I would say that almost a century defines them as “well-established” – doesn’t it make sense to manage them as important recreational and economic opportunities? If these introduced species were going to eradicate salmon, don’t you think that would have happened already? If they were an important negative influence on salmonid populations, don’t you think that the double whammy of Bonneville Dam and populations of bass, walleye and voracious Northern pikeminnows would have done them in by now? Or should we praise hatcheries?

In a 2005 paper in Fisheries, titled “Economic Growth and Salmon Recovery: An irreconcilable conflict?,” Dr. Robert Lackey provided an exhaustive list of causes for decline in native salmon: intense commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing; freshwater and estuarine habitat alteration due to urbanization, farming, logging and ranching; those dams, of course, and the attendant mitigation hatchery production; water withdrawals for agricultural, municipal and commercial needs; stream and river channel alterations, and a myriad of other sources, including introductions of “exotic” fish species. He admitted that the list was not complete, but I note that most of the things he listed are very difficult to fix or can’t be fixed. It makes me want to conclude that – from that long list of contributors to the decline – “exotic” bass and walleye are the easiest to go after, the low-hanging fruit. In reality, however, are they the fix? I doubt it. 

I doubt trying to eliminate or reduce bass and walleye will make a dent in salmon recovery, but it is certainly going to make a big bruise in state agency and angler relations, as well as angler-to-angler relations. Is it really necessary, in the quest for a fix, to pit one group of anglers against another, to imply that one has a higher priority than another? This borders on the worst kind of “elitist” fishery management, and one that certainly has no place in the American model of natural resource conservation.

Perhaps Dr. Lackey’s most important point and the one relative to my topic is that it is not the biological and ecosystem changes themselves that lead to adverse effects on the abundance of wild salmon but, in fact, the policies that drive economic activity that result in the overall effect.

We can discuss the biology of decline and the agents of decline ad nauseam and probably be very comfortable doing that. The issue is how do we, as fisheries managers and sportfish industry leaders, deal with economic policies that fuel the declines? How do we address the fact that it is time to recognize the fundamental conflict between economic growth and salmon recovery? Bonneville Dam will remain the elephant in the room, among many other elephants that are way too big to eliminate. And salmon are the obvious losers, even if heroic management efforts are undertaken. If we had the magic bullet, we would have found it by now. But economic growth in the Pacific Northwest almost guarantees that the forces at play which determine policies to support that growth will be forces working against salmon recovery. 

Additionally, changes in ocean and climatic conditions, regardless of whether or not these changes are partially driven by human activities, are going to have a big influence on salmon abundance, even if how this may occur is poorly understood. To reference Jim Martin’s call to action again, 25 or 30 years from now, Portland, Ore., will likely have the climate of Sacramento, Calif. Are we preparing for that – or even thinking about it?

Back to the truth according to Bruce Shupp, and now, me, Noreen Clough. I quote Bruce again:

The decision whether bass should be deregulated involves much more than balancing concerns of interest groups. Removing regulations may provide ideological gratification to salmonid restoration enthusiasts but without achieving the target biological benefits. That false gratification does not justify the risks.”

Now that we have the Washington state “experiment” as our test case, I only hope that in the process of proving that removing regulations from black bass will have no effect on salmon populations, the Washington state fisheries managers will decide that bass and bass anglers have important recreational and economic niches in the 21st century’s altered ecosystems and should be managed as the robust recreational fishery it is.

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