A legal settlement aims to let Central Valley anglers eat more striped bass, in hopes that stripers will then eat fewer endangered species.
The agreement, awaiting approval by a federal judge, requires the Department of Fish and Game to change the size and number of striped bass that fishermen can keep.
It results from a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.
The striped bass is a nonnative predator that eats endangered species, including endangered smelt and young salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In the lawsuit, the coalition alleges that state officials have mismanaged the striper by allowing anglers to keep only two at any given time, and none smaller than 18 inches long.
As a result, the striper population has been allowed to grow, contributing to steep population declines in several species native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The settlement requires Fish and Game to change the limits on size and number governing striper fishing. It does not say how those limits must change. But the end result will likely be more lenient rules.
"All indications are that if you reduce predation (by striped bass) the endangered species should benefit substantially," said Michael Boccadoro, spokesman for the coalition. "We think it's a great settlement to begin to address the issue."
Fish and Game officials did not respond to a request for comment. The settlement is to be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno on March 17.
The state does not admit fault in the settlement.
The lawsuit has been controversial because the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta consists of large San Joaquin Valley farm irrigation districts – primarily in Kern County – which depend on water diverted from the Delta to grow crops. Critics say those irrigators merely want to divert attention from the water diversions, which also kill endangered species.
The coalition, however, has maintained it wants to change other aspects of Delta management that have received relatively little attention from regulators.
The case has also divided anglers. The striper is a prized sportfish and supports a significant share of the region's recreational fishing industry, especially in recent years when salmon fishing was halted to protect the species.
Some fishermen note stripers have long existed in harmony with other species, and the population has waxed and waned with them as well.
Brandon Beachum, owner of Champion Sportfishing Outfitters, a West Sacramento guide service, does not support reducing the size limit on stripers, but said anglers should be allowed to take more of them.
"The stripers annihilate salmon," said Beachum. "But if we didn't have stripers during the salmon closure, I would have been absolutely out of business."
Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, warned that if stripers decline, other predators that may be worse for salmon and smelt will fill that gap.
Jennings' group is an intervenor in the lawsuit on behalf of Fish and Game and does not support the settlement.
The agreement sets a timetable for Fish and Game to submit new rules to the state Fish and Game Commission, which is ultimately responsible for changing the rules.
The department will also be required to set aside $1 million to research predation by invasive species. This research does not have to be completed before new fishing regulations are enacted.