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Tighter California Limits Aim to Protect Populations of Saltwater Bass
by Jim Hendricks
 MG 5696
Jim Hendricks
Tighter restrictions on kelp bass (shown here), barred sand bass and spotted sand bass will limit California anglers to five bass per day, with a minimum size of 14 Inches, effective April 2013. Current regulations allow for 10 bass per day with a minimum size of 12 inches.

News that the California Fish and Game Commission (FGC) voted last week to tighten the size and bag limits for kelp bass, barred sand bass and spotted sand bass has sparked the ire of passenger sport-fishing boat operators in the southern part of the state where at least two of these saltwater species represent a major portion of the catch along the coast and at the offshore islands.

The new regulations, which take effect April 2013, increase the size limit to 14 inches (currently 12 inches) and decrease the daily possession limit to five bass (currently 10). All three species are combined in a daily limit.

Operators of Southern California passenger sport-fishing boats (known locally as party boats) have been hit hard in recent years by the weak economy, high fuel prices, lackluster offshore seasons, angling closures due to the adoption of new marine protected areas, seasonal closures and depth restriction on bottom fishing, and now tighter restrictions on the popular kelp bass and barred sand bass, more commonly called calico bass and sand bass, respectively.

The FGC instituted the new regulations based in part on a statistical study published by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which paints a dire picture of bass populations. All three bass species enjoy game fish status, meaning they are off limits to commercial fishing. California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) statistics back up the study, indicating that the annual barred sand bass catch has declined by 85 percent since 2001, and that kelp bass catches have declined by more than 70 percent since the 1980s.

However, the Scripps study, funded by environmental groups, leaps to a conclusion that recreational overfishing is causing this decline. In particular, it blames party boats that target calico and sand bass during the summer spawning seasons when these fish congregate in big numbers and become easy targets.

Other scientists, including Erica Jarvis, a researcher for the DFG, says there are other factors to consider. She contends that the Southern California coast has had a major influx of colder water since 1988, the result of a La Nina in the equatorial Pacific. “It appears…that warmer periods are more favorable to these species than cool periods,” she reported.

In any case, in a unanimous vote, the FGC decided that the slow-growing bass need a bit more protection.

Interestingly, some recreational fishermen are pleased with the new regulations, including avid calico angler Ben Secrest, who pioneered big-bass tactics in California and is now director sales and marketing for Accurate Reels.

I have known Secrest since the early 1990s, and he has always promoted a strong catch-and-release ethic for California saltwater bass. So have well-known pioneering calico anglers such as Barry Brightenburg, Jimmy Decker and Greg Stotesbury, and this philosophy has taken root among many private boat fishermen today, leading to the mantra, "Slow to grow, so let them go."

"Some party-boat guys hate me," said Secrest. "But without this [tighter regulations] we're going to have a huge problem in the future. These regulations will give them [passenger sport-fishing boat operators] a future livelihood."

As I have said here in the past, I have no problem with tighter limits, as long as I can catch and release as many bass as I want. I have not killed a bass in more than 15 years, and I don’t intend to kill any in the future, whether I'm on a passenger boat or my own boat.