Wednesday April 20, 2022

The author William Ware holding a gar (left) and a largemouth bass (right).

Hi, my name is Will Ware, and this is a story about me uncovering the secret lives of striped bass (Morone saxatilis), or “striper” as many fishers call them. I am the second recruit from the Coastal Science and Policy Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz to be completing a capstone project with FISHBIO (the first was Biraj, who worked to support several projects for a network of Fish Conservation Zones on the Mekong River in Laos). I work in FISHBIO’s Santa Cruz office, and my current work revolves around striped bass. These fish interest me because of the ecological, resource management, and public health challenges they present. In many ways, striped bass are still an ecological mystery despite the amount of research conducted on them, as biologists try to estimate how many individuals are found in different regions, when and where they move across specific areas, and what influences their feeding habits. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife introduced striped bass into the state as a source of food in the late 1800s, and they have since been identified as a stressor to native fish populations. Striped bass still continue to provide food and economic support for culturally diverse fishers across the Golden State, despite containing high levels of contaminants like heavy metals.

Before studying striped bass in California, these elusive fish evaded me during my time living in southeastern states, where resource managers farm and introduce them to inland waters. Stocked striped bass possibly hid in the cool, murky depths of reservoirs where I first learned to fish around the outskirts of Atlanta. As I studied fisheries at the University of Florida, I sampled slow-flowing tannic waters and free-dove in clear springs across the state, where I found lots of striped mullet (Mugil cephalus). Although I never saw it, a large shoal of striped bass swam under my radar, hidden deep within the Ocala National Forest. Ever persistent, I kept working to uncover the slimy secrets that these fish hide.

Will holding a striped bass

Later during graduate school, I searched through striped bass archives in FISHBIO’s Fish Report newsletter. Striped bass are a recurring theme of FISHBIO research, and I soon became directly involved in this work. One of my first tasks was drafting a report that compiled information on striped bass in the Salinas River Basin for the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. This helped me learn even more about the fish than my prior snooping. I continued learning by reviewing striped bass data collected by FISHBIO and other researchers across the San Francisco Estuary and Central Valley. Data from the Native Fish Plan project on the Stanislaus River suggested that different body sizes of striped bass were captured between the early (i.e., February–April) and late (i.e., May and June) portions of annual sampling seasons from 2019 to 2021, and statistical tests confirmed this difference (Mann-Whitney U; p < 0.001). I am currently collaborating with FISHBIO staff to learn more about the distinct differences in the body sizes of striped bass sampled during each year by developing dynamic occupancy models to investigate patterns. Interesting results have emerged.

Our research has the potential to be one of many efforts informing adaptive management of Chinook salmon and striped bass in the San Joaquin River Basin, especially on tributaries such as the Stanislaus River. This is a complex issue that I continue learning about as my research and fishing skills improve. I eventually landed a striped bass on the Sacramento River, mainly due to the guidance and fishing gear of my FISHBIO mentor. I measured my first fish, captured on rod-and-reel, to be about 24 inches long from end to end before watching it swim off. Stay tuned for a future story about results as I complete my research.

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