Saltwater Bass Regulation Changes

The environmentalists scored a big victory on Wednesday when the Fish and Game Commission President Dan Richards was voted out at their meeting in Ventura. In February, Richards, who’s an outspoken proponent of fishing and hunting, fell out of favor with California’s environmental overlords when Western Outdoor News published a photo of him bear-hugging a mountain lion he killed during a legal hunt in Idaho.

Animal rights groups in California, where mountain lions are protected, saw the photo as a slap in the face and led a witch hunt that pressured the Commission into changing its rules to remove Richards from the presidency. Richards was replaced as president by Jim Kellogg, who is also a fisherman and hunter, but is more moderate and is expected to play ball with the enviros.

Jennifer Fearing, the state director of the Humane Society of the United States, was quoted in a Mercury News article by Paul Rogers as saying, “I hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter for the Fish and Game Commission, one in which we might anticipate a commission that is reflective of all the values of Californians.” She went on to say that Richards “has been embarrassing the rest of the Commission” with his outspoken style and contrary views on things like the MLPA.

I’m not exactly sure of whose values she’s referring to, but ousting the president because he doesn’t toe the tree hugger line certainly isn’t reflective of my values as a Californian, but I guess fishermen don’t count.

So with the bad apple plucked from the bushel and the “new chapter” begun, the Commission got down to the business of discussing the proposed changes to our saltwater bass regulations.

The meeting started with a presentation by a DFG staffer, who used a combination of catch data and other data (I use the word “other” because the staffer was unclear as to how or where this information was gathered) to determine that our sand bass and calico bass stocks had been depleted between 71 and 91 percent over the last decade.

Yes, you read that right. According to them, in 10 years the bass stocks have been depleted by up to 91 percent!

Considering that none of the data previously published by the DFG shows anything even remotely close to those numbers, I’m amazed that the staffer was able to keep a straight face while spewing such nonsense. The staffer did add the caveat that this horrific decline may be due in small part to the cold sea surface temperatures that Southern California has experienced over the last 14 years.

The staffer recommended the Commission adopt an increased size limit to 13 inches, a bag limit of 10 bass, including no more than five of one species, and a minimum of a two-week closure on sand bass at the end of July.

Fifteen speakers showed up to make comments at the meeting, including some of the most experienced sport boat operators on the coast: Don Hanson of Dana Wharf Sportfishing who’s been running local fishing boats since 1950; Tim Green who owns and operates the San Diego half-day boat Premier and has over 35 years of experience; and Don Brockman, long-time owner of the Freelance out of Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach. Combined, these three captains bring over 100 years of combined experience to the table and their message was clear and unanimous.

The data used to compile the DFG reports was flawed and is not indicative of the actual bass stocks in Southern California. The captains all support regulation changes that could enhance the fishery. When asked by Commissioner Mike Sutton, “What would he do given the data presented?” Don Hanson responded that nothing needed to be done because the bass population was not depleted. He went on to say that the reason the sand bass have been absent during the spawning months over the last few years is because Southern California lays on the upper edge of the sand bass’ range and the bulk of the biomass only moves into our waters when the ocean is warm, which it hasn’t been since the last good sand bass season.

Tim Green echoed his sentiments saying that although his half-day boat has been struggling to catch sand bass for the last few years, the fishing has been wide open just several miles down the Mexican coastline.

To further dispute the reported decline, Don Brockman offered that even when the water temperatures are conducive to bringing fish up from Mexico, they don’t always bite. Brockman mentioned the current sand bass bite happening in Huntington Beach. Based on the fish counts, you would think that there are no spawning fish to be caught, but what the counts don’t say is that every day the boats are metering huge schools of sand bass, but they aren’t catching those fish because they are feeding on the massive amount of squid that is spawning in the same area.

Regarding the calico bass population, the consensus was that it’s healthy but that live bait availability had a big effect on the fish counts. Don Hanson said that in recent years, the only bait available has been big sardines and it’s tough to target 13-inch calico bass when you’re using an 8-inch bait. As a result, the counts have gone down making it appear as if the fish stock has been depleted.

Commissioners Michael Sutton and Richard Rogers made it a point to give their opinions calling it a mistake to allow anglers to fish during the spawn. Rogers went as far as referring to it as a “slaughter.” These strong opinions leaves anglers standing on a slippery slope. If the commission votes for sand bass closures during the spawning season, it could potentially lead to white sea bass, halibut, barracuda, yellowtail and rockfish closures during their spawning seasons as well.

With Richards no longer heading the Commission, DFG scientists making extreme claims about the health of our bass population and the environmentalists blaming it all on the fishermen, it looks like things could get really ugly for fishermen. But all hope is not lost. There is still time to do something before the November 7th meeting when the Commission will decide on the new regulations.

Regardless of your stance on bass populations or whether or not you even fish for bass, please take the time to send a letter or email telling the Commission that you are against closures. Closing the sand bass fishery for two weeks a year may not sound like a big deal, but it will set a precedent that opens the door to creating regulations that will prohibit targeting any fish during their spawn.

For information on how to send an email to the DFG, check out my previous column, Proposed Changes to Saltwater Bass Regulations.

Saltwater Bass Regulation Changes

Erik Landesfeind is BD's Southern California Editor and has over 30 years of experience saltwater fishing for a range of species in both California and Mexican waters. Erik is also an active freelance writer and the author of the weekly column So Cal Scene, which BD publishes every Friday. In So Cal...