State officials acclimated and released Sacramento perch in Lindo Lake in San Diego County in an effort to boost populations of the endangered fish as it can comfortably survive in a wide range of water temperatures.
SAN DIEGO— A batch of 37 juvenile Sacramento perch were released in Lindo Lake in eastern San Diego County by Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologists to increase the numbers of the native species, broaden their range and provide a sustainable target for anglers.
Historically, they were found in various freshwater habitats throughout California, including rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. They were particularly prominent in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its tributaries, as well as in some Southern California waters.
However, Sacramento perch – not true perch, but the only sunfish native to California – populations have significantly declined due to habitat loss, water diversions and competition from introduced species and are currently listed as endangered. As a result, they are now considered a threatened species and are no longer found in many of their historical habitats.
Efforts are being made to conserve and reintroduce Sacramento perch into suitable habitats, but their distribution is currently limited compared to their historic range. To find Sacramento perch today, you would need to consult with local wildlife agencies or conservation organizations for information on specific locations where they have been reintroduced or are known to exist in the wild.
California anglers are familiar with their reliable population in Crowley Lake near Mammoth Lakes, and they also inhabit Bridgeport Reservoir, with some escapees winding up below the dam in the East Walker River.
State officials introduced the native-warm water tolerant sunfish to Southern California to widen its range, strengthen its gene pool, create a breeding stock and generate interest among more anglers.
“It’s a native game fish that we can promote as a viable fishery in the future where we may not be able to have trout in certain areas because of climate change and warming waters,” said CDFW environmental scientist Matt Lucero in a statement after releasing the fish in batches.
The multi-year experiment reflects the changes being presented to sportfishing in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds as the water warms. Sacramento perch isn’t the only species battling its environment as water continues to warm. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, climate change is the biggest threat to the survival of trout in America’s interior West. It is estimating that up to 50 percent of trout habitat in the Rocky Mountain region is at risk of vanishing by the century’s end.
State biologists stated that Sacramento perch will never replace trout. Rather, the focus is on maintaining a native species. Anglers will benefit from the species persevering because it adds another target species option as temperatures rise, limiting seasons for cold-water species in some places.
Max Fish, the department’s senior environmental scientist overseeing the efforts, said the state hopes to introduce Sacramento perch to fishing spots in more urban areas.
“We’re in an exploratory phase to evaluate how well the fish will do, and how communities react to those fisheries,” said Fish.
According to Tiffany Turner of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership which advocates for conservation to help anglers and hunters, California is correct in acting now to expand the habitat of climate-resilient fish, but some resistance is initially expected as the sport clings to traditional practices.
According to biologists, the vari-colored green and purple fish, whose markings and long spiny dorsal fins are evidence of a legacy dating back 15 million years, is applauded for its resilience, thriving in everything from cold mountain lakes to warm, stagnant brackish water. The perch’s ability to adapt allowed its survival through catastrophic floods that destroyed a large portion of Central California more than 160 years ago. While the fish’s population has dwindled, the main culprit is the introduction of non-invasive species, including more aggressive sunfish which pushed the Sacramento perch out of its native habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Scientists hope introducing the fish to Southern California will help bolster the gene pool and build data for the captive breeding of Sacramento perch. Some expect the native fish to someday flourish as a food source, like tilapia, a highly adaptable warm-water species that is illegal to cultivate in California due to its potential to invade native ecosystems.
Peter Moyle, a Sacramento perch expert at the University of California, Davis, praised the state for bringing the species to Southern California. “It’s one of the best tasting freshwater fish I know of,” said Moyle, adding that it’s also fun to fish since it puts up a fight.
With challenges to overcome, the project is expected to take at least three years before fishing opens in Lindo Lake. Sacramento perch larvae was released in Lindo Lake last summer after it was drained, dredged, restored to its natural state and supplied with fish habitat structures. Unfortunately, someone released a bucket of largemouth bass, which eat native sunfish eggs. It is unclear how many of the eggs survived, but biologists hope that introducing the perch in their juvenile stage will give the fish a fighting chance of establishing its population. The juveniles are believed to be about a year old and are expected to spawn in one year, laying as many as 10,000 eggs.
San Diego County has posted “No fishing” signs around Lindo Lake to prevent anglers from snatching up the population. Additionally, rangers are regularly on patrol during daylight hours, but the lake is located in a public park surrounded by apartments, homes and stores. It’s through education that scientists believe the public can keep the perch safe.
The perch were transported from the Bridgeport Reservoir, tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The perch were stunned with electrical current, causing them to float belly up, so scientists could easily scoop them up. They eventually gathered the 37 fish and made the eight-hour drive to San Diego County. The fish were then acclimated to their new habitat, 6,000 feet lower than their prior elevation. The fish were released into the water, at 83 degrees Fahrenheit, while swapping out their water from Bridgeport, which was 68 degrees.
The fish crowded together before eventually spreading out and swimming around the bin, letting the scientists know that they were acclimated and ready to be released. The fish were released in an area away from the dock (where bass tend to linger), but not too far out where there were cormorants.
Lucero suited up in his waders and walked out waist deep while releasing the perch. Environmental scientist Austin Sturkie stood on the dock and scooped out the batches and handed them off.
“Boys stay together,” Lucero jokingly instructed.
As Lucero and Sturkie worked, a man cheered, “Yay! More bass.”
Lucero corrected him, “No, it’s Sacramento perch. They’re better!”