Fishery Biologist: Delta Smelt are Likely “Virtually Extinct in the Wild”

For the past three years, no Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have been found in California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl survey.

None have been found in the first two months of the four-month survey this year either.

On November 14, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) fishery biologist Tom Cannon in his California Fisheries Blog reported that two other surveys on the Delta have turned up similar results for the Delta smelt.

“The Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) caught only 1 Delta smelt in 2200 smelt-targeted net tows in 2021,” wrote Cannon. “This compares to 49 captured in 2020 and hundreds in prior years.  None were captured in the Spring Kodiak Trawl 2021 survey (Figure 1).  This year’s results indicate that Delta smelt are likely virtually extinct in the wild.”

The virtual extinction of Delta smelt in the wild is part of a greater ecosystem crash caused by massive water exports to corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley, combined with toxics, declining water quality and invasive species in the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

The pro-agribusiness policies that have resulted in the demise of Delta smelt, winter-run Chinook salmon and other fish species are the result of deep regulatory capture of the Governor’s Office, California Legislature and regulatory agencies and commissions by San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness interests like the Resnicks, owners of the Wonderful Company, and the Westlands Water District.

For example, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaire agribusiness tycoons and major promoters of the Delta Tunnel and increased water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have donated a total of $366,800 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to the campaign to fight the Governor’s recall.

These latest donations are not the only donations given to Newsom’s campaigns by the Resnicks since 2018. Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.

Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

“Taken as five-year averages, the declines for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad are 98.1, 99.8, 99.8, 26.2, 99.3 and 94.3 percent, respectively,” said Jennings.

The diversion and export of water for Central Valley agribusiness interests during a drought has also had a huge impact on imperiled Sacramento River populations, just as it has had on driving the Delta smelt to become virtually extinct in the wild.

“Last year during the height of California’s Drought, the California State Water Quality Control Board approved a plan that allowed the federal government to enact the Trump Water Plan without meeting California clean water laws,” according to Regina Chichizola of Save California Salmon. “This plan allowed over 80% of baby salmon to be killed in the Sacramento River under Shasta Dam from lethal water temperatures, and it allowed the reservoir to be drained for diversions to industrial farmers that grow crops such as rice and almonds.”

She noted that many Californians testified for California to not allow Trump Water Plan diversions that put agricultural deliveries above cities’ drinking water, the San Francisco/Bay Delta, rivers and the salmon. The Board ignored these comments and allowed the federal government through the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to disregard state and federal laws, along with the public trust and tribal rights.

“Then the BOR violated their own plan to ‘only’ kill 80% of the endangered winter-run salmon in the Sacramento River every day but one through the diversion season,” she noted.

“This led to a massive fish kill of 98%-99% of juvenile Sacramento River winter Chinook salmon and the draining of California’s largest reservoir, Shasta Reservoir, down to 24% capacity,” she concluded.

Not only did nearly all of the winter run Chinook salmon juveniles perish due to warm water conditions in the Sacramento River this year, but the majority of adult spring-run Chinook salmon on Butte Creek perished before spawning this year, due to an outbreak of disease in low and warm water conditions.

The CDFW detailed in a snorkel survey report on the creek that 12,370 salmon had died before spawning from June 1 to July 27, 2021. That’s the majority of the 18,000 fish that the CDFW estimated ran up the creek this year to spawn.

Then the next CDFW snorkel survey report revealed that 14,500 fish out of the estimated 18,000 spring Chinook died before spawning by August 3.

I will post here the latest results of the Fall Midwater Trawl Survey and the final salmon carcass and hatchery counts on the Central Valley rivers as they become available.

But remember extinction is forever — and this disaster occurred on the watch of Governor Gavin Newsom, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and CDFW Director Chuck Bonham.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher