Dangerous rhetoric follows California Fish and Game Commission’s decision to proceed with full-status report for petition to list white sturgeon as threatened.

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PITTSBURG PRODUCES – Anthony Talarico of Sacramento fished with Captain Steve Mitchell of Hook'd Up SportFishing for this sturgeon.
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BY DAVE HURLEY

During the June 19 Fish and Game Commission meeting in Mammoth Lakes, the Commissioners voted unanimously to proceed with the petition from the San Francisco Baykeeper, Restore the Delta, the Bay Institute, and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance to list the white sturgeon as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. The decision came late in the day as the agenda was modified to accommodate a presentation and after two lengthy public comment periods on other agenda items.

Finally, at 4:28 p.m., agenda item 15 – White sturgeon petition to list – Consider and potentially act on the petition, began. The agenda item began with a presentation from Dr. John Kelly, the Statewide Sturgeon Coordinator from the Department of Fish and Wildlife followed by a presentation from Dr. Jon Rosenfeld, Science Director of the SF Baykeeper. Due to time constraints, public comment was limited to one-minute from the participants who were still present on Zoom to speak, many waiting since the meeting began at 9:00 a.m. After public comment was completed, the commissioners deliberated before finally taking what eventually became a unanimous decision to proceed with a one-year status review before a final decision on listing is made.

Once the review is approved within a few weeks, white sturgeon will be restricted from any fishing unless the Commission approves a 20.84 petition during their August meeting to allow catch-and-release during the period of the full-status review. The timing of the agenda item late in the day, limiting public comment, was unfortunate as this concern has been addressed again and again with the commission. The result, when the commission attempts to cram all agenda items into a long day, elicits a further lack of trust in their decision making.

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There is no question that this is an emotional and consequential decision for the many charter boat captains and bait shops that rely on the white sturgeon for a large percentage of their income. However, this significant problem will not be resolved by blaming others within the fishing community. There are many factors leading to the decline of white sturgeon – harvest from recreational fishing is one significant stressor, but the main factors remain the increased water diversions, primarily for agricultural use in the southern San Joaquin Valley along with excessive nutrient releases from wastewater plants into the Bay/Delta. Rather than look at a holistic approach to this problem, the rhetoric that has followed on social media laying blame on specific individuals is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous. On the day following the commission’s decision, the president of a major northern California organization representing guides and sportsmen, characterized this situation in a Facebook Live post as a ‘Fight between Good Versus Evil,’ stating that representatives of ‘non-fishing’ interests have no authority to speak on fishing issues. He went on to lay the blame at the feet of ‘a couple of captains who decided to do this 18 months ago at the January 2022 Wildlife Resources Committee meeting,’ stating, “You will reap what you sow, you just got the entire fishery closed.” In addition, the claims that the current science is flawed, inaccurate, and old were repeated.

The lack of trust in the Department’s data has been a common thread over the past several Fish and Game Commission meetings during public comment. Both Fish and Wildlife Director, Chuck Bonham, and Commission Vice President, Dr. Erika Zavaleta, addressed the concerns about data with statements indicating these complaints only seem to come when the participants are unhappy with the outcome of the data.

It’s time to take a step back to evaluate how we got here before moving forward. Although it’s easy to create a scapegoat to fill the anger that has risen from the regulation changes and resulting loss of income, there have been warning signs for years that too many white sturgeon were being harvested. Unfortunately, few were willing to listen to these concerns and carried on with business as usual. The lack of urgency has led us to the current situation – white sturgeon harvest restricted for at least a year with the possibility of a catch-and-release season. This problem is far greater than a battle between ‘Good vs. Evil.’ As one individual stated during the public comment – ‘When you rely on exploiting natural resources for a living, your livelihood is at the mercy of the availability of the resource.’ Instead of rhetoric promoting ‘us versus them,’ representatives of fishing organizations should be lobbying state legislators to provide economic relief for the full-time captains and tackle shops affected by the closure of the fishery. There should also be increased effort to place additional emphasis on the major causes of the decline of all anadromous species in the Bay/Delta. Blaming others doesn’t solve the problem, it just masks the real concerns.

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