The war on bass continues

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Jack Bissell

Smallmouth are being wrongfully blamed for harming salmon numbers in the Pacific Northwest.

In the Pacific Northwest, bass anglers can relate to comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who often lamented, “I don’t get no respect.”

For years, fisheries managers and officials in Oregon and Washington have waged what often appears to be a politically motivated — and sometimes even gratuitous — war on bass and other warm-water species, as well as the sizable number of anglers who pursue them. They do so, they say, because these non-natives harm native salmon and steelhead populations through predation.

Anglers counter that bass, with populations established in some waters for more than a century, simply are easy targets because of their prominence. They argue that loss of habitat, water withdrawals and dams, which block migrations, have done far more to damage salmon numbers, even as they have created ideal conditions for bass, walleye and catfish.

In Oregon, the latest volley occurred in July, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) issued a press release that concluded, “Although not native to the Coquille, smallmouth bass are considered a gamefish and must not be wasted. Anglers can use them in many ways, including table fare, garden fertilizer or as crab bait.”

Then in August, the agency followed with an email blast to anglers, which included links to “Try Spearfishing for Smallmouth Bass” and “Coquille Chinook: Help a Salmon, Fish for Bass.”

Granted, smallmouth were illegally introduced into the Coquille River in recent years. But the Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation (OBN) has been an ally with ODFW in combating such behavior. It is cosponsor of the “Turn in Illegal Introductions” program, which provides cash rewards for information leading to convictions of those who illegally transport and release fish in the state.

In return, though, OBN and 26% of Oregon’s anglers who fish for bass and other warm-water species get no respect. At an August meeting regarding the state’s proposed new non-native gamefish management policy, OBN Conservation Director Lonnie Johnson pointed that out.

“When we moved the discussion to ‘garden fertilizer’ and ‘crab bait,’ there were several red faces in the room,” he said. “It seemed management was willing to blame I&E [the Information and Education Division], but I&E was very quick to point out that they acted under the direction of management.”

In Washington, meanwhile, politicians now have decided that bass are responsible for declines not only in salmon, but orcas as well. As a consequence, legislation was passed that calls for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission “to liberalize bag limits for bass, walleye and channel catfish in all anadromous waters of the state in order to reduce predation risk to salmon smolts.”

Thus, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has removed all size restrictions and daily limits on bass, walleye and catfish in rivers, streams and beaver ponds. Additionally, it has liberalized daily limits on 77 lakes, with the number allowed for smallmouth increasing from 10 to 15 and for largemouth from five to 10.

'Low-hanging fruit'

“The rationale, which was not supported by good research, was that those fish were eating an inordinate amount of Chinook salmon fry, which was having a negative effect on resident killer whales in Puget Sound,” explained Washington angler Joel Nania, a veteran of the bass war in his state. “This is, by and large, a total misconception, as those whales are impacted much more significantly by other factors.”

Degraded habitat and predation on salmon by other species, including cormorants and seals, likely are major factors.

In 2019, a salmon restoration organization, Long Live the Kings, reported the following:

“There is evidence to suggest that human activity and decisions are driving a number of problems: limited prey for young salmon, a lack of estuary habitat, contaminants and disease.

“Humans have even facilitated the increase in marine mammals through the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This important law has worked well to protect many marine mammals from harassment and death, but people are wondering if it’s worked too well for some species.

“Current research suggests harbor seals are eating many salmon. In Puget Sound alone, the harbor seal population has increased threefold since the 1980s, a time when our salmon survived at much higher rates. While we are still working to better understand their impact on salmon recovery, initial studies suggest seals and sea lions may be consuming two times as many Puget Sound salmon as are caught by humans, with seals being the primary consumer.”

Meanwhile, Nania said, “We were told by the WDFW that our non-native gamefish were considered ‘low-hanging fruit’ so they could show they were taking measures.”

That’s not to say that bass don’t eat salmon smolts. Because they are opportunistic predators, they do. But no evidence suggests their impact is significant.

“I really think that we just have to have a scapegoat for all of the failures [to sustain salmon fisheries] in other areas,” said Stan Steele, a bass and crappie angler who retired as an Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division senior trooper and then guided for a dozen years.

A member of the Oregon Outdoor Council, Steele added that the finger-pointing started decades ago, when Oregon had a world-class coastal striper fishery. “Then came a downturn in salmonids and the stripers were villainized,” he explained.

“Thirty years later we now have a low population of stripers, and yet we’re still having problems. Stripers weren’t a factor, and so now they’ve moved into inland fisheries, like the John Day River,” Steele continued. “For numbers, it’s a world-class smallmouth fishery. But salmon and steelhead numbers have dwindled, so they must be the reason.”

Agricultural withdrawals and warmer water temperatures are more likely culprits, he added.

Yet black bass remain the No. 1 target. Recent action follows Washington’s removal of limits and size restrictions on bass in the Columbia and Snake River systems in 2017 and Oregon’s on the Columbia, Umpqua and John Day in 2015. At that time, Johnson said that he believed the move was preordained because of pressure by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tribes and preservationist groups who do not like non-native fish.

“There definitely seems to be an internal bias by managers against non-native fish,” Steele said. “And anywhere that they cohabit with native species, there’s this belief that they have to protect the natives. When they referred to bass as garden fertilizer, that tells you what they really think.”

Reason for hope?

Both in Washington and Oregon, warm-water advocates aren’t about to surrender their fisheries.

“The trend has been disturbing for a long time, so we, statewide, decided we needed to go on the offensive, since you simply don’t score many points on defense,” said Washington’s Nania, who joined the Empire Bass Club in 2004 with his son Joey, now a pro angler.

Anglers lobbied for a legislated committee to oversee WDFW management of non-native gamefish. They didn’t quite get there, but the agency is now forming an ad hoc committee with a similar mission.

“The problem is that ad hoc committees have very little true impact on policy development and adherence going forward,” Nania said. “That is why we were seeking legislation for a long-term legislated oversight committee. We want to grow the sport, and we know that takes time. For example, Washington state is one of the few states without a collegiate bass fishing team. 

“We still plan to pursue rewriting the Warm Water Enhancement Act to make sure that we have a growth initiative.”

In Oregon, meanwhile, Johnson, representing a loose coalition called the Warmwater Champions (WWC), came away concluding that the August meeting with ODFW was “productive.”

“Deputy Director Shannon Hurn seems genuinely interested in mending fences with the warm-water community,” he said.

Herb Doumitt, another attendee, added that agency leaders “were somewhat contrite about the way the 2015 regulations came about. The feedback the department has received since then has been noticed at the highest levels within the department.”

Finally, WWC was asked to submit comments regarding the new non-native gamefish management policy.

But Steele isn’t swayed by the agency overtures. “It’s a battle here,” he said, adding that ODFW didn’t originally ask warm-water anglers for input.

“It’s not what the policy says so much as how it will be applied,” he added.

For example, it states the following:

“The department may attempt to reduce or remove non-native gamefish populations at specific locations, depending on the degree of conservation risk, management options and resources available and [the] likelihood of success.”

That won’t be applied equally across the state because final decisions will be made by regional managers and biologists, Steele explained. “Some will be more holistic, but others will be preservationist, allowing warm-water fisheries to hit rock bottom, maybe even rotenoning them.

“We might see natural-reproducing [warm-water] fisheries destroyed for put-and-take trout fisheries.

“This is just wrong,” he added. “Holistic management is the only way this will work. Yet there’s no mention or promotion of the benefits that warm-water species and world-class smallmouth fisheries, like the John Day, bring to the state. Nationally, warm-water species are the ones most economically valuable.”

Nania agrees with that assessment.

“We have what is considered a great fishery, especially for largemouth and smallmouth bass,” he said. “And we feel that the state is really missing the boat on growing that resource, which, in the long term, would contribute millions of dollars into the state budget.

“I have always been in business and economic development, and I know the benefits that growth of bass fishing can bring to the state,” Nania continued.

“Add that to the pure intrinsic values that outdoor sports, especially fishing, bring to people young and old, and it makes it more than worthwhile to pursue growth of the sport in Washington state.”