This week, I might be stepping into quicksand. If nothing else, it’ll be entertaining for the rest of you to watch.
While a good many local anglers applauded the California Fish & Game Commission’s decision at its Feb. 2, 2012 meeting to strike down proposed changes to striped bass regulations, changes that, at the very least, would degrade the quality of a fishery that supports considerable segments of the local economy, there was a curious footnote to the proceedings.
A desire to declare striped bass, introduced from the East Coast, as a ‘native’ California species.
California Fish & Game Commission’s then-Director Daniel W. Richards summed up the issue:
Another great comment that I heard today was this issue of what is native. [California Department of Fish & Game] Director Bonham and I had great conversation just yesterday about this. We are regularly, and just several months we were being challenged with a frogs and turtles matter of non-native species…it’s controversial and there’s both sides to it, and these striped bass have been here for 130 years. At what point in time do we…and some of the analogies we gave I thought were terrific, especially when you take it down to the human level, who’s a native Californian and who’s not. I thought it was really very apropos. I mean, they’ve been here 130 years, that’s, I don’t know, what is that, that’s three or four generations I think you’d probably call that. [Striped bass] starts to be fairly native to me.
After that, then-President Jim Kellogg, after pointing out that he worked on the first pump station on the Delta (1966-’69) and saw the numbers of fish those unscreened pumps dumped into the canal announced in his last act as president:
…because nobody’s got an answer as to how this is done, or who declares it or something like that, I’m going to declare the striped bass a native species in the state of California.
Central to the proponents of the new regulations painted striped bass — asking it be considered an invasive species — as largely responsible for the decline of the state’s salmon stocks. Opponents cited striped bass’ long history in the California Delta (declared a sport fish in 1935) and its coexistence with salmon and Delta smelt over that time. (The definition of ‘coexistence’ may be considered ill-defined in the absence of any hard, long-term, historical data.)
While most will agree that these proposed changes to the striper regulations was a thinly veiled water grab, it does bring to light a conflict that can arise between native and now wild populations of introduced fish, particularly without a firm scientific understanding that can overwhelm any argument from either side of the debate. And while the predation of introduced species changes ecosystems, there’s no scientific model to predict the consequences of eliminating such a long-entrenched species.
In the short span of our lives, does ‘native’ becomes anything that was here before us? Big brown trout and competitive rainbows have so well supplanted Lahontan cutthroat trout — it and the Eagle Lake Rainbow were once the only trout in the Easter Sierra — that rarely does one hear of an angler landing a decent Lahontan, expect those in Crowley Lake and the Upper Owens River. And it’ll be a shame when Lahontan cutthroat no longer exist in California, which is likely to happen.
But it’s hard to label the non-native trout that provide us so much recreation as ‘invasive.’
In any case, might these naturally reproducing fish populations better fit a status similar to that of ‘historical (living) landmark?’ Is there an appropriate measure of time before anyone can declare an introduced species to be a ‘naturalized citizen?’ And will the difference between native and naturalized fish populations eventually become indistinguishable, legally or otherwise?
Regardless of the answers, I’ll be the one overlooking the illegal immigration status of the trout that eats my fly.
If you’re interested, the video recording of the meeting can be found here; click on the link for Feb 2, 2012 and fast forward to about 1:35:00 for the start of the striper discussion.