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Indybay Feature
Delta Pollution Results in Stunted and Deformed Baby Striped Bass
by Dan Bacher
Monday Dec 8th, 2008 6:42 PM
An alarming report released by UC Davis Professor David Ostrach documents the maternal transfer of pollutants to striped bass fry in Central Valley rivers and the California Delta, resulting in stunted and deformed fry.

Photo: The top fish is a normal striped bass larva from a hatchery mother. The bottom fish is an abnormal striped bass larva from a river mother. The green arrows indicate areas of abnormal fluid accumulation, yellow areas indicate blistering and dead tissue, and red arrow indicates skeletal abnormality/curvature of the spinal cord. (David Ostrach/UC Davis)
Delta Pollution Results in Stunted and Deformed Baby Striped Bass

by Dan Bacher

Pollution in the California Delta is contaminating the eggs of wild striped bass, resulting in stunting and deformation in baby striped bass, according to an alarming scientific report released by UC Davis Professor David Ostratch.

"Striped bass in the San Francisco Estuary are contaminated before birth with a toxic mix of pesticides, industrial chemicals and flame retardants that their mothers acquire from estuary waters and food sources and pass on to their eggs," according to a statement from the UC Davis researchers.

This report was released as Central Valley chinook salmon and Delta fish populations continue to crash, due to massive increases in water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and an alarming decline in water quality in the estuary in recent years. State and federal scientists have documented a precipitous decline of juvenile striped bass and three other pelagic (open water) species - Delta smelt, longfin smelt and threadfin shad - since 2005.

"This is one of the first studies examining the effects of real-world contaminant mixtures on growth and development in wildlife," said study lead author David Ostrach, a research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. He said the findings have implications far beyond fish, because the estuary is the water source for two-thirds of the people and most of the farms in California, including drainage impaired land in the Westlands Water District of the San Joaquin Valley.

Using new analytical techniques, the researchers found that offspring of San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary fish had "underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers." They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean, unpollluted water.

"If the fish living in this water are not healthy and are passing on contaminants to their young, what is happening to the people who use the water, are exposed to the same chemicals or eat the fish?" Ostrach emphasized. "We should be asking hard questions about the nature and source of these contaminants, as well as acting to stop the ongoing pollution and mitigate these current problems."

The new study, published online Nov. 24 by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of a series of reports by Ostrach and UC Davis colleagues on investigations they began in 1988. Their goal is to better understand the reasons for plummeting fish populations in the imperiled estuary, the largest and most significant estuary on the West Coast.

"Biologically significant levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and current-use/legacy pesticides were found in all egg samples from river-collected fish," the report abstract stated. "Developmental changes previously unseen with standard methods were detected with a technique using the principles of unbiased stereology. Abnormal yolk utilization, brain and liver development, and overall growth were observed in larvae from river-collected fish."

The full news release on the report can be read on the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) website,

The study is available at: Unfortunately you'll have to pay to read the full report.

In an ironic twist, sources have informed CSPA that this project may be halted because the Department of Water Resources had the Pelagic Organism Decline (POD) Managers kill the funding for this program, according to Jerry Neuburger, CSPA Webmaster.

"These striped bass were the 'canary in the coal mine' for the Delta fisheries," said Neuburger. "An effort is being made to salvage the program and alternative funding is being sought so that the research may continue."

CSPA Sues Stockton and Davis over Water Pollution

Meanwhile, CSPA is suing the City of Stockton and the City of Davis and is pursuing correction of another 32 point pollution sources that feed into the rivers draining into the Delta. "These pollution sources and excessive agricultural runoff are the cause of this deformation and stunting of stripers," explained Neuburger. "These polluters are poisoning our rivers and the fish that live in them. CSPA will file suit against all of these polluters unless they fail to correct these violations, as well as ANY others identified as poisoning our waters and fisheries."

On December 1, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) and Felix Smith, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, filed an historic lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento Superior Court over the "wasteful use" of Delta water.

The seven-count lawsuit alleges violations of the public trust, California Constitution, Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, Fish and Game Code 5937 and State Board Decision 1641 and asks the court to curtail water exports from the Delta. The lawsuit charges that the huge export pumps near Tracy in the south Delta kill thousands upon thousands of smelt and small salmon fry every year, at different times of year, and are the main threats to public trust resources in the Delta.

CSPA urgently needs the funds in order to force the federal, state and regional governments to take the necessary actions to restore our imperiled fish populations. Neuburger urged people concerned about the decline of Central Valley/Delta fish populations to join CSPA and donate at the level that you can afford! For more information and to donate, go to

California Striped Bass Fishery Background

Striped bass are native to the waters of the East Coast of the U.S., including the Hudson River, Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. The initial introduction to California occurred in 1879, when 132 small stripers were transported from the Navesink River in New Jersey via railray car and released into Carquinez Straits near Martinez. A second plant of 300 stripers into lower Suisun Bay took place in 1882.

The striped bass population grew quickly in the estuary's fertile water, with a commercial fishery developing within 10 years of the fish's introduction. The Department of Fish and Game closed commercial fishing for the bass in 1935, making the fishery solely a recreational one.

The striper population has varied widely in recent years. Abundance probably reached a peak of 3 to 4.5 million fish in the early 1960’s. The population varied from 1.5 million to 1.9 million fish from the mid-1960’s through 1976, but declined to an all time low of 600,000 fish in 1994, the result of increasing water exports, declining water quality and other factors.

Since that time, the population of legal-sized striped bass has increased to about 1.5 million. “The recent upturn in abundance is unexplained and is being investigated by DFG scientists,” according to the DFG.

On the other hand, the juvenile striper population has declined precipitously over the past two decades. For example, in the fall 2005 trawl net survey in the Delta, DFG biologists documented the second lowest number of young-of-the-year stripers.
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