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California Fish and Game Commission Adopts New Striped Bass Policy for Delta

California Fish and Game Commission Adopts New Striped Bass Policy for Delta
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In late February 2020, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to adopt an amended striped bass policy for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Striped bass are non-native species that have established a presence in the Delta beginning in the late 1800s. The new policy eliminates a specific population objective for striped bass, but also states a commitment to sustaining the striped bass fishery within the Delta.


Striped bass were introduced into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) in the late 1800s. Commercial fishing of striped bass was outlawed in 1935. Between the mid- 1970s and 1990s, populations of the non-native striped bass in the Delta plummeted from over 2 million fish (estimated) to less than 700,000. To improve the population, in 1981 the California Legislature established the Striped Bass Management Program. However, the program was eliminated in the early 2000s. According to a Senate Floor Analysis for a pertinent bill from 2003:

“Striped bass populations have been steadily increasing. In fact, they have reached a point where predatory striped bass, an introduced species, are becoming a problem in recovering certain native species of fish.” (Senate Floor Analysis, SB 692 (2003), p. 2.)

Indeed, trawl survey data indicate that striped bass populations have substantially increased in the last ten years, though they are still not near the abundance levels seen in the 1970s and prior years. Some estimates put the number of striped bass in the Delta at or below 300,000.

In 1996, the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) adopted a striped bass policy that set a long-term population restoration goal of 3 million adult striped bass within the Delta. The Commission set a five to ten year goal of 1.1 million adults, reflective of the striped bass population in 1980. The Commission identified several means of achieving its population targets, including helping to maintain, restore, and improve habitat, pen-rearing fish salvaged from water project fish screens, and artificial propagation. Additionally, Commission regulations continued to provide for a take limit of two striped bass, with a general 18-inch length limit, unless an exception applies. (CCR, tit. 14, § 5.75.)

In 2016, the Commission received a regulation change petition from a local interest group called the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, among others, requesting an increase in the bag limit and a reduction of the minimum size limit from striped bass in the Delta. According to the petition, the purpose of the regulatory change would be to reduce predation by striped bass, as well as black bass, on fish native to the Delta and listed as threatened or endangered under the federal or California Endangered Species Acts. These threatened or endangered species include winter-run and spring-run chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, and Delta smelt. Negative impacts on threatened or endangered species can, according to the petition, affect water deliveries from the Delta to local water users as well as water users elsewhere in the state.

Despite the petition later being withdrawn, the Commission requested that the Wildlife Resource Committee (WRC), operating within the Commission, begin reviewing the existing striped bass policy adopted in 1996. More broadly, an effort to review existing policy and to potentially adopt a new policy concerning fisheries management in the Delta has been in progress since 2017. Following public stakeholder meetings and discussions, including with representatives from the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, an initial draft fisheries policy emerged that became the subject of stakeholder and Commission discussion leading up to the Commission adopting its newest striped bass policy.

Policy Options

In early 2020, the Commission held a meeting with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and stakeholder groups representing fishing and water interests to discuss three striped bass policy options that were presented to the Commission in December 2019. The three options were comprised of two stakeholder options and one Commission staff option. According to the Commission, discussion focused primarily on whether a specific numeric population target for striped bass was appropriately included in a revised striped bass policy. Ultimately, the Commission voted unanimously to adopt an amended policy that did not include a specific numeric target, and instead aimed to “monitor and manage” the striped bass fishery in the Delta.

Points of Agreement

Prior to the Commission’s adoption of the revised striped bass policy, the Commission and sport fishing industry stakeholders reached several points of agreement related to the importance of a striped bass fishery in the Delta. In particular, stakeholders and the Commission agreed that a new policy should include ensuring a robust recreational fishery or maintaining/increasing striped bass recreational angling opportunities. However, stakeholders and the Commission also agreed that the 1996 policy’s objective of achieving a striped bass population of 3 million was likely unrealistic given the current state of the Delta, and that pen-rearing and artificial propagation would likely be unsuccessful in light of past efforts using those methods, which were not successful in reversing fish declines. Moreover, pen-rearing is not a practice employed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in inland waters. Nonetheless, stakeholders and the Commission agreed that activities designed to support striped bass, such as habitat improvement, controlling invasive aquatic vegetation, improving water quality, reducing striped bass loss, and monitoring populations of striped bass should be included in the policy.

Point of Disagreement—Numeric Target

The primary point of disagreement between the Commission and stakeholders was setting a numeric target for the striped bass population in the Delta. From the Commission’s perspective, identifying a specific numeric target would not lead to a different result compared to striped bass population numbers over the past few decades, when a specific numeric target was in place. Instead, according to the Commission, the striped bass population in the Delta would depend on management actions aligned with policy-based guidelines, as well as third party and stakeholder relationships. Generally, the Commission adopted the view that many Department of Fish and Wildlife projects that help restore the Delta ecosystem also benefit striped bass, including by focusing on benefits to native species. Accordingly, given limited resources available to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Commission contended that resources should be devoted to native species, as opposed to restoring numerically defined striped bass populations in the Delta.

Fishing industry stakeholders advocated for specific numeric targets, typically around 1 million striped bass in the Delta. Many stakeholders contended that a specific numeric population figure would help make the Commission’s policy concrete and measurable. Additionally, academic support was offered for maintaining striped bass populations in the Delta due to the bass’ long-term presence in the Delta, despite its introduction as a non-native species. In particular, striped bass populations can be used to evaluate the health of the estuarine ecosystem of the Delta, because the bass spend each of their life stages within the Delta and typically parallel salmon and smelt population increases or declines. Nonetheless, the Commission adopted a policy that does not provide a specific population target, but does commit to maintaining the striped bass fishery in the Delta.

Conclusion and Implications

Without a specific numeric population figure for striped bass in the Delta, some stakeholders may believe the Commission’s policy could lead to a decline in striped bass populations. At the same time, however, if the Commission is correct that general improvements to Delta ecosystems and habitat that benefit other species may also benefit the striped bass, the species could experience some level of stability or even increase. Only time will tell how the Commission’s new striped bass policy will affect population numbers in the Delta. The Striped Bass Policy is available online at:

(Miles B. H. Krieger, Steve Anderson)