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Pumped to Extinction

by DAN BACHER

The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is now requesting data and comments on a petition to uplist delta smelt under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) from “threatened” to “endangered,” according to Marty Gingras, Supervising Biologist of the DFG Bay Delta Region.

The request was made on the same day that the DFG released the data from its fall midwater trawl survey. The survey results indicate that populations of delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento splittail, American shad, and juvenile striped bass this fall continue on their downward spiral towards extinction. Results from the survey are posted here.

The Bay Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed the petition in April 2007, arguing that an uplisting of the fish was needed to prevent the fish from becoming extinct. The California Fish and Game Commission is considering the petition to uplist the species.

The Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) is a small native 2 to 3 inch fish listed as threatened under both CESA and the Federal Endangered Species Act. It is regarded as an indicator species that shows the health of the Bay-Delta Estuary.

Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, live only in the Delta. Because the fish is listed as threatened under CESA, California law already prohibits take of Delta smelt unless authorized by DFG.

“DFG’s Fall Midwater Trawl fish survey completed in December found considerably low abundance of Delta smelt in the San Francisco Estuary and Delta,” said Gingras. “The annual survey collects several small pelagic fishes from 116 sites located between San Pablo Bay and the lower reaches of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and provides data on these species.”

The delta smelt abundance index, a relative measure of the species’ population, was the second lowest on record in the fall survey, surpassed only by 2005’s fall index. The index was 27 in 2005, 41 in 2006 and 28 in 2007.

The index for the longfin smelt, a cousin of the delta smelt, was the lowest on record, only 13, in contrast to 129 in 2005 and 1949 in 2006.

The abundance of juvenile striped bass was the third lowest on record, while the abundance of American shad was the lowest ever recorded. The splittail index was only 1, compared to 5 in 2005 and 4 in 2006, although there was one year that was even worse, the drought year of 1977, where no splittail were recorded in the survey.

Finally, the threadfin shad was the only fish that showed any improvement at all in the population, with an index of 3177. By comparison, the indices were 1294 in 2004, 2866 in 2005 and 2225 in 2006.

“Pursuant to the provisions of Section 2074.6 of the Fish and Game Code, DFG must complete a status review of the species and provide a written report to the Fish and Game Commission that indicates, based upon the best scientific information available, whether or not uplisting the Delta smelt from threatened to endangered under CESA is warranted,” said Gingras.

DFG will submit its report to the Commission on June 20, 2008. Comments from interested and affected parties, including members of the public and local agencies, are requested by Feb. 29, according to Gingras.

Unfortunately, the DFG failed for over a decade to require the State Department of Water Resources (DWR) to get an incidental take permit for killing thousands of smelt in the Delta export pumps, as required under CESA. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance filed a lawsuit against the state of California for the failure by state agencies to obey the law – and Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled in favor of the alliance last year. The Resources Agency is appealing the decision.

As a result of this lawsuit and a final court order issued by Oliver Wanger on December 14, export pumping by the state and federal governments from the Delta, for the first time in history, was curtailed last spring during the peak migration period of the smelt.

The main cause of the decline of the delta smelt and other pelagic (open water) species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is massive increases of water exports in recent years. Unfortunately, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on January 8 during his “state of the state” address again campaigned for his fiscally irresponsible and environmentally destructive water bond proposal. His proposal would result in an even more degraded ecosystem, since it focuses on building a peripheral canal and more dams to increase water exports.

I urge everybody concerned about the future of the California Delta to submit their comments regarding why the delta smelt should be listed as “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act.

Please send data and comments related to the petitioned action and/or the status of Delta smelt to:

DFG Supervising Biologist Marty Gingras
Department of Fish and Game
Re: Delta Smelt Petition
4001 North Wilson Way
Stockton, CA 95205
by electronic mail to: mgingras [at] dfg.ca.gov with “Re: Delta Smelt Petition” in the subject line
by fax to: (209) 946-6355, Attention: Marty Gingras, Re: Delta Smelt Petition.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

 

 

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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