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January 27, 2012

Saltwater Bass Catches Drop Sharply in So Cal

Scientists disagree on reasons for decline

The California Department of Fish and Game responded last week to study that indicates the annual catch of barred sand bass catch has declined by 85 percent since 2001, while kelp bass catches have dropped by more than 70 percent since the 1980s.

The study by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, was funded by environmental groups. It concludes that recreational fishing has decimated the barred sand bass populations. In particular, it lays blame on passenger boats that target sand bass during the summer spawning season when these fish congregate on mud flats in big numbers.

Kelp bass – more commonly called calico bass – behave differently than sand bass, confining their late spring spawning activities to rocky structure, wrecks and kelp beds. Yet, somehow this fact was glossed over in the conclusions of the Scripps study.

Erica Jarvis, a researcher for the DFG who confirmed the statistical drop in annual catches, is not inclined to blame anyone, pointing to natural factors. She contends that the southern California coast has had a major influx of colder water since 1988, the result of a “La Nina” condition in the equatorial Pacific.

“It appears that warmer periods are more favorable to these species than cool periods,” she reported at a Fish and Game Commission meeting last week.

In any case, the study has spurred the commission to considering tighter limits on sand bass, calico bass and a lesser-known member of this bass family, the spotted sand bass. Ideas discussed by the commission included smaller bag limits (currently 10 bass in combination), larger minimum size limits (currently 12 inches), seasonal closures and area closures. It may be a year or more before any of these restrictions become reality, if at all. – Jim Hendricks