San Francisco –The Bay Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resources Defense Council today petitioned for state and federal endangered species protection for the longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys), a fish that has dropped to record low numbers in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and is nearing extinction in other northern California estuaries. The groups simultaneously asked the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the California Fish and Game Commission to list the species statewide under the California Endangered Species Act.
“On the heels of the Delta smelt crisis, longfin smelt are telling us that the problems are bigger than the Delta,” said Dr. Tina Swanson, senior scientist with the Bay Institute. “We need to take a serious look to how we are managing the San Francisco Bay-Delta and California’s other vital estuaries and comprehensively deal with known problems of reduced freshwater inflows, habitat destruction, toxics and invasive species. If we don’t, we could lose keystone species from these estuary ecosystems and the commercial and sport fisheries that depend on them.”
The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is home to the largest and southernmost self-sustaining population of longfin smelt. Populations that once occupied the estuaries and lower reaches of Humboldt Bay and the Klamath River have also declined and may now be extinct. Longfin smelt were once one of the most abundant open-water fishes in the Bay-Delta and a central component of the food web that sustained other commercially important species. Throughout the 2000s, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has been just three percent of levels measured less than 20 years ago; for the past four years, longfin smelt numbers have been at record lows.
“Poor management of California’s largest estuary ecosystem could claim another of our native fish species, this time the longfin smelt — a species formerly so common that it supported a commercial fishery in San Francisco Bay,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The decline of longfin smelt, as with Delta smelt, is absolutely correlated with reduced freshwater flow into the Bay and excessive water diversions.”
Longfin smelt have declined due to many of the same degraded environmental conditions that caused the collapse of the Delta smelt: reduced freshwater inflow to the estuary as a result of massive water diversions; loss of fish at agricultural, urban, and industrial water diversions; direct and indirect impacts of nonnative species on food supply and habitat; and lethal and sublethal effects of pesticides and toxic chemicals.
“First it was Delta smelt. Now it’s longfin smelt. Others will follow if we don’t watch out,” said Kate Poole, an attorney with NRDC. “Next in line are several salmon runs, sturgeon, steelhead, Sacramento splittail, striped bass and threadfin shad. Restoring the Delta for these fish will make it more drinkable, swimmable, and fishable for the rest of us – the majority of Californians who depend on a healthy Delta.”
The Delta smelt, a species already listed under state and federal Endangered Species Acts, recently plummeted to the lowest population levels ever recorded. The conservation groups submitted petitions in 2006 and early 2007 to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state commission to up-list the Delta smelt's federal and state status to endangered, a change necessary to compel fisheries agencies to implement recommended actions to protect Delta habitat for the smelt. Though the state is making progress, the federal government is dragging its feet.