For years, individuals and non-government groups in the Northwest have waged a war on bass, pushing for removal of limits and even bounties on the fish that have been established in some waters for more than a century. They blame predation by the warm-water species for the general decline of salmon and steelhead, even though evidence suggests that is true only in limited and isolated cases.
Many fisheries biologists, meanwhile, have been sympathetic to the cause, while state agencies mostly have treated bass and other nonnative warm-water species with benign neglect, instead of open hostility.
The cold-water war against bass has heated up, as Washington State has removed size and bag limits for bass and walleye in the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries above McNary Dam on the Washington/Oregon border. The big question now is what will happen on the lower 300 miles, which serve as a border between Washington and Oregon, as the former seems intent on pushing for removal of limits there as well.
Traditionally, the two have tried to manage with the same regulations on this river that is world famous for its hefty smallmouths.
“Previously, it was NGOs (non-government organizations) pushing for removal of limits. But now the mindset seems to have changed in Olympia (Washington state capital),” says a biologist, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“Now, I’m pretty sure that Washington will propose taking the rest of the regulations off. If Washington does it, will Oregon go along?” he asks. “They (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) said that they wouldn’t rubber stamp it, that they’d have to see the biological benefits of doing so. But I’m skeptical.”
Additionally, now that a state has joined the war, its advocates might enlist the aid of Indian tribes as surrogates to sue both states for removal of limits.
The feds already have sided with the anti-bass faction, and, in fact, pressured Washington state to conform. The state also was considering taking off the bag limit, but requiring that only three bass per angler could be more than 15 inches.
In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) said that option “would imply a desire by WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) to maintain a healthy population of large, non-native predators.”
Yet the agency also admitted that quantifying the damage done to salmon and steelhead by bass “is difficult to quantify.” And it admitted, “The extent to which a regulation change will affect the harvest of these species and thereby reduce predation rates on at-risk salmon and steelhead populations is uncertain . . .”
Still, even if limits on bass are removed all the way to the mouth of the Columbia, anglers likely won’t see a big change in the population. That’s because most of the fishermen who target smallmouths release them.
So, even if smallmouth predation were having a significant impact on salmon and steelhead generally --- and it’s not --- removing limits would do little to remedy that.
“On the main stem of the Columbia, increasing spill (dam discharges) instead of storing water for hydropower, would be more helpful,” says the biologist. “It would make the Columbia more like a river again, fish wouldn’t bottle up, and water temperatures would lower, meaning predators wouldn’t feed as aggressively.
“But spill is money, while bass are low-hanging fruit that are easy to target.”
Social implications, however, could be significant, with relationships becoming even more strained between warm-water anglers and state wildlife agencies. When resource managers remove limits on a species, they are saying that it has no value. Yet thousand of anglers annually pay licenses and fees to fish for smallmouth bass. In return, they want a return on their investment.
And they have the right to expect that.
Additionally, their financial contributions benefit all fisheries, both warm-water and cold, as they enable the states to qualify for matching funds from the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program.
Before removing size and bag limits on smallmouths, Northwest resource managers would be wise to remember that.
If they truly wanted to revive native species, they would insist on blowing out the dams that have impeded their migration and spawning, while creating hospitable habitat for bass and other warm-water species.
But those dams also provide hydropower and water for agriculture, benefitting millions of people. Consequently, they will stay too, while bass remain low-hanging fruit that are easy to target by private groups, and now, it seems, at least one state government.
(This column appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)