Striped Bass in the San Francisco Estuary: Insight Into a Forgotten Past

A typical commercial fishing boat of the 1920s, drifting gill nets upstream of Carquinez Strait. Fisherman would often spend multiple days on the water, unloading their daily catch on “pick up” boats operated by SF fish dealers. Photo: W.L. Scofield, 1926.

by Dylan Stompe and Peter Moyle

Striped bass are well known throughout California as a hard-fighting game fish, excellent table fare, and a voracious predator on other fish. Striped bass were introduced into the San Francisco Estuary in 1879 and are often cited as a major cause of native species decline. Historically they were valued as a strong indicator of estuary health, as well as a very important game fish. In fact, key ecological monitoring programs in the estuary were established in the 1950s and 60s to keep track of striped bass populations.

Because striped bass are one of California’s best-studied fish species, there is an abundance of historical data regarding their abundance, distribution and diet. By tapping into this information we can build a better understanding of California striped bass life history and historical trends, and better understand their role in the San Francisco Estuary ecosystem.

We have recently embarked on a project reviewing the life history, biology, and status of striped bass within California waters, as compared to their native waters of the East Coast. Through our plunge into the historical literature, we have uncovered a series of largely forgotten facts about striped bass which we present here as a brief quiz. Answer the questions below to test your knowledge of California striped bass. Consider yourself an expert if you get 7 of the 10 answers right. Answers are at the end of the blog.

  1. From which state did California’s striped bass originate?

a. North Carolina

b. New York

c. New Jersey

d. Connecticut

2. Approximately how many striped bass were introduced to the San Francisco Estuary?

a. 15

b. 145

c. 435

d. 1505

3. When was the first striped bass caught on the West Coast outside San Francisco Bay reported?

a. 1880

b. 1882

c. 1887

d. 1892

4. In what year did the commercial fishery begin in earnest for striped bass in California?

a. 1880

b. 1889

c. 1893

d. 1900

5. In 1893-1894 what was the average weight, in pounds, of striped bass sold in the San Francisco fish markets? (N = 1,461)

a. 1

b. 3

c. 7

d. 11

e. 15

6. What were the main fish consumed by adult striped bass in the San Francisco estuary in the 19th century?

a. Delta Smelt

b. Chinook Salmon

c. Juvenile Striped Bass

d. Native Minnows

e. Common Carp

7. In which river were striped bass most common in the 19th century?

a. Mokelumne

b. San Joaquin

c. Sacramento

d. American

e. Feather

8. What’s the unofficial largest striped bass to have been caught by hook and line in California (to the nearest pound)?

a. 45

b. 68

c. 74

d. 88

e. 95

9. In what year were statewide regulations first adopted for the protection of the striped bass fishery in California?

a. 1905

b. 1909

c. 1916

d. 1920

e. 1922

10. What was cited as the initial cause of striped bass population decline in California waters?

a. Altered Flow Regimes

b. Entrainment in Pumps

c. Pollution

d. Prey Decline/Change in Prey

e. Commercial Fishing

Observations on the historical diet, abundance and distribution of striped bass give us a better understanding of estuary conditions in the past. For example, their apparent preference for carp as prey in the late 1800s indicates that other non-native species were already abundant in the system. It also suggests that the bass were feeding on the bottom, in shallow, turbid water. Likewise, the apparent change of preference in rivers for spawning from the San Joaquin to the Sacramento in the 20th century is another indicator of changing river conditions from a time when flow and water quality data is sparse.

An 87.5lb striped bass, caught in San Antonio Creek by Charles R. Bond in 1912. San Antonio Creek is a small tributary to the Petaluma River in Petaluma, California. Photo courtesy of the Marin Rod and Gun Club.

The changes in attitude of people towards this fish are also instructive. Striped bass started as a much-heralded introduction to provide a familiar and prized fish for the tables of residents of the SF Bay region. Its population explosion resulted in a huge commercial fishery, which was eventually abandoned in favor of the sport fishery.

By the 1930s, it was revered by all as one of the best game fishes in California, for both sport and table. By the 1960s, it was recognized as an abundant, but probably declining, species, in part because of changing conditions in the estuary. This resulted in flow regulations to protect the bass and monitoring programs to track their abundance.

In the last 10-15 years, the management paradigm has shifted again: striped bass are now regarded as an alien invader that suppresses populations of declining salmon and smelt, despite its concurrent population decline and value as a game fish. Perhaps this paradigm should be reconsidered: should we instead treat striped bass as a sentinel species to provide insights into the condition of the SF Estuary?

Regardless of your own opinion of California striped bass, it is clear that there is value in understanding its history and gaining insights into the SF Estuary’s ecosystem that this much-studied species affords.

Dylan Stompe is researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences, studying the abundance, distribution and life history of striped bass in the San Francisco Estuary. Peter Moyle is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Scofield, Eugene. 1931. The Striped Bass of California (Roccus lineatus)California Division of Fish and Game Fish Bulletin 29:  84 pp.

Scofield, N. and H. Bryant. 1926. The Striped Bass in California. California Fish and Game 12 (2) :55-74

Smith, Hugh. 1895. The Striped Bass History and Results of Introduction. U.S. Fish Commission Bulletin. Vol 15.

Quiz Answers:

  1. C; The first introduction was sourced from the Navesink River and the second from the Shrewsbury River. Although separate rivers, they both drain into the same estuary and may have been effectively the same population.
  2. C; 435: 135 in the first introduction, 300 in the second.
  3. A; An eight inch bass was reported to have been caught in Monterey Bay, just 6 or 7 months after the first introduction. The first confirmed report in SF Bay occurred several months after that.
  4. B; The commercial fishery quickly ramped up to a maximum harvest of 1.8 million pounds in 1915. The commercial fishery was then banned in 1935 in favor of the growing recreational fishery.
  5. D; Average sizes were dependent on month of capture, with a range of 7 to 14 pounds during this time period.
  6. E; Anecdotal accounts from bass examined both in the fishery and in the fish market indicated that carp were a major prey of bass of all sizes. Carp were introduced to California seven years prior to striped bass, in 1872, and presumably were experiencing their own population explosion.
  7. B; There are many observations of aggregations of striped bass in the San Joaquin River, apparently for spawning, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In contrast, commercial salmon fishermen in the Sacramento River rarely reported catching striped bass during the same time period.
  8. D; On the wall of the Marin Rod and Gun Club is a picture of an 87.5 lb striped bass caught in a tributary to the Petaluma River in 1912.  The current IGFA world record of for striped bass of 81.88lbs was caught in 2011 in Connecticut
  9. B; A ban on export of striped bass from California, as well as a ban on commercial fishing for striped bass during spawning season, was adopted in 1909. Regulations became stricter after a record harvest in 1915, in part due to pressure from recreational anglers.
  10. E; While the fishery was blamed for the decline from the days of super-abundance, even early observers thought multiple factors were involved, including dams, water diversions and pollution.
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