SAN FRANCISCO -- The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service today made a positive initial finding on a petition to list the San Francisco Bay population of the longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys), a native fish species related to the Delta smelt, under the federal Endangered Species Act. This is the first step toward a formal listing for the longfin, which has dropped to record low numbers in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and is nearing extinction in other northern California estuaries.
“Unfortunately, longfin smelt is just the latest victim of federal and state mismanagement of California’s largest and most important estuary,” said Dr. Tina Swanson, senior scientist with the Bay Institute. “But maybe this decision, following close on the heels of the collapse of the state’s salmon fishery and court-ordered changes in water export operations to protect Delta smelt, will serve as a reality check for those who still think our rivers and the Delta can supply ever-increasing amounts of water without devastating environmental and economic consequences.”
The Bay Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned for federal protection of the San Francisco Bay-Delta longfin smelt population in August of 2007. The Fish and Wildlife Service must now conduct a status review of this population and make a final listing determination, which is legally due in August of 2008.
“Unsustainable water diversions have crippled Central Valley salmon runs and driven the Delta smelt, and now the longfin smelt -- once an extremely abundant species and a critical link in the food chain -- to the brink of extinction,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sea changes are needed in the management of the Delta to prevent further unraveling of the estuarine food web and the loss of commercially important species.”
“Longfin smelt and many other fish in the Bay-Delta are suffering from a lack of sufficient fresh water to keep them alive,” said Kate Poole, an attorney with NRDC. “Yet, water managers’ response to these environmental alarm bells is to propose a massive new peripheral canal that would take even more water out of the Delta, worsening the crash of our fishing industry and making Delta water more toxic. It’s time for the agencies to take a serious look at fixing the hub of California’s water system.”
Longfin smelt, cousins of the threatened Delta smelt, were once one of the most abundant open-water fishes in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and other northern California estuaries, and a central component of the food web that sustained other commercially important species. In 2007, following decades of decline, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population fell to unprecedented low numbers. The abundance index measured from Fall 2007 trawl surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game was the lowest ever recorded (13, down from 1,949 the previous year) since regular surveys began in 1967 and more than 80 percent lower than the previous record low. In 1967, before Delta water exports at the state and federal water projects shifted into full gear, the abundance index was 81,790. Three of the five lowest longfin smelt abundance indices from the fall trawl surveys have occurred since 2004.
Longfin smelt have declined due to many of the same degraded environmental conditions that have caused the collapse of the Delta smelt: reduced freshwater inflow to the estuary because of massive water diversions; loss of fish at agricultural, urban, and industrial water diversions; impacts of nonnative species on food supply and habitat; and the effects of pesticides and toxic chemicals. The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is home to the largest and southernmost self-sustaining population of longfin smelt. 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.
In February 2008, in response to a state listing petition filed by the conservation groups, the California Fish and Game Commission designated longfin smelt statewide as a candidate for threatened or endangered status under state law. State candidate species are afforded many of the legal protections of endangered or threatened species while a status review is conducted. A final state listing determination is due in August. The Commission also adopted interim regulations to protect longfin smelt that require water managers to reduce water exports from the Delta when longfin smelt are present in areas where they could be killed at the State Water Project and Central Valley Project pumps. These regulations go above and beyond the recent Kempthorne decision by Judge Wanger reducing Delta water exports to protect the related Delta smelt.
The Delta smelt, a species already listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, also recently plummeted to the lowest population levels ever recorded. The conservation groups submitted petitions in 2006 and 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. Though the state is making progress toward an endangered listing, the federal government is dragging its feet.