If I were to ask how many species of bass there are currently, what would you answer? Most people would answer three: largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass. The truth is, there are around 19 taxonomic forms of black bass out there. This is a fancy way of saying that there are 19 different species, subspecies, or yet to be described species out there swimming around. Most people have never even heard of the more endemic black bass species such as shoal bass, Guadalupe bass, and redeye bass. In redeye bass alone, there are now seven different species described and proposed. These are not subspecies, but species in their own right. That’s a big change from assuming there was only one species of redeye bass less than a decade ago. How has this explosion of diversity within the bass genus happened? Well, the most obvious answer is the advances in genetic tools and making those tools more affordable for fisheries management and conservation has inevitably led to a greater understanding of the diversity that exists in the black bass world. What does this diversity mean?
Diversity means different things for different people. While genetics has been extremely important in understanding the population structure of bass as they are today, it can also be quite the headache for state agencies to try and manage. Let’s look at the most well-known example of the largemouth bass. These fish have been stocked all over the world to enhance sport fishing opportunities. Even within their native range in the United States they have been moved around between drainages and reservoirs. Advances in genetic tools have led to our understanding that there are actually two species of largemouth bass. There is the one most of us think of, the northern largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), and there is the Florida largemouth bass (Micropterus floridanus). The two are genetically distinct, and some agencies have adopted them as a unique species. Florida Wildlife Commission has embraced the Florida bass and have started trying to conserve and protect its genetic integrity. Other agencies, such as Alabama DNCR have continued to stock Florida bass into areas with largemouth bass, despite knowing the genetic concerns of doing so. This highlights the often-opposing factions that state agencies must appease. There are anglers that want bigger fish and that’s all that matters to them, and then there is the charge of conserving and preserving our natural resources for those still in the womb of time.
What does all of this mean for the fisherman? One of the things all anglers enjoy is catching a variety of different fish. Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources has done a great job of promoting their bass slam, which rewards anglers that catch five species of black bass in one year with a certificate, some stickers, and other swag. Others have started creating kayak tournaments specific for the rarer species like Guadalupe bass to help create awareness. All of this presents new challenges to anglers that are looking for the next thing to check off their list of accomplishments, but hopefully these events are also helping to spread the word among anglers that there are conservation issues that need awareness. Afterall, if we do not become advocates for our fisheries and the waters that we enjoy, who will?
– Matt Lewis