Bass vs. salmon: Can they not coexist?

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.