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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Did a Shifting Ecological Baseline Mask the Predatory Effect of Striped Bass on Delta Smelt?


Striped Bass, Morone saxatilis, has been an established member of the San Francisco Estuary’s (estuary’s) aquatic community for nearly a century and a half. As a predator, it has the potential to shape community composition through top-down control of lower trophic species, including the endangered Delta Smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus. Invasive predators can be particularly disruptive to native communities because they present novel dangers to naïve populations, but, as a long-established member of the aquatic community, Striped Bass has not previously been considered to limit the Delta Smelt population. Here, we develop an argument that Striped Bass are important to controlling Delta Smelt. We support this argument by reviewing historical data which suggests that declines in Delta Smelt before the current-day monitoring program were driven by the invasion of Striped Bass into the estuary. We describe this phenomenon as the ‘phantom predator’ hypothesis in the context of an analog to the shifting baseline syndrome previously described for marine fisheries. A deeper understanding of how well studied (and rapidly changing) bottom-up drivers of the estuary food web interact with poorly understood (but also rapidly changing) controls at the top of the food web could prove very important to the conservation of other declining native fishes and possible future attempts to re-introduce captive-reared Delta Smelt to the estuary.

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