2/2/11: Feds Will Reevaluate Endangered Status of Longfin Smelt
Feds Will Reevaluate Endangered Status of Longfin Smelt
Latest Surveys Show Key San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish Species Remain at Record Low Numbers
San Francisco, CA, February 2, 2011 -- A federal district court today approved a settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity, The Bay Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that requires the agency to reevaluate whether federal Endangered Species Act protection is needed for the severely depleted longfin smelt, a native fish and critical component of the food web in the beleaguered San Francisco Bay-Delta. Recent state surveys show that longfin smelt and other native fish in the Bay Delta remain at low numbers and indicate the ecosystem is in ecological collapse.
“Endangered Species Act protection is desperately needed for longfin smelt and other formerly abundant fish in the San Francisco estuary that are being driven to extinction by record water diversions from the Delta,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The new governor should immediately cut excessive water exports that benefit subsidized corporate agribusiness and sprawl development in Southern California while devastating our native fish and once-healthy salmon runs.”
“The data clearly indicate that longfin smelt, which were once among the most abundant forage fish in our estuary, are almost gone,” said Dr. Jon Rosenfield, conservation biologist with The Bay Institute. “Scientists agree that the San Francisco population is uniquely important to the species as whole and to the estuary’s food web. The Service’s flawed decision had no basis in the best available science that the Endangered Species Act requires.”
The conservation groups petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt in 2007. The Service, after an initial positive review of the petition in 2008, initiated a formal “status review” for the species, but in April 2009 improperly denied federal listing. The Service determined that longfin smelt in the Bay-Delta are not a distinct population — a finding that was criticized by leading scientific experts on longfin smelt as “incomprehensible” and contrary to science. In November 2009 the conservation groups challenged that finding in a lawsuit against the Service. Prominent native-fish experts have recommended an endangered or threatened listing for longfin smelt.
The Service has agreed to complete a rangewide status review of the longfin smelt and make a new determination on whether Endangered Species Act protection is warranted by Sept. 30, 2011. The Service will also consider whether the Bay-Delta or any other longfin smelt population from California to Alaska qualifies as a “distinct population” that warrants federal protection.
The California Fish and Game Commission responded to a 2007 listing petition by voting to protect the longfin smelt as a state threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act in 2009. According to recent surveys in the San Francisco Bay-Delta by the Department of Fish and Game, native, open-water fish species remain at alarmingly low levels. The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey, which has been ongoing since 1967, shows that although longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) numbers in the Delta rebounded slightly in 2010, the species remains at low abundance and continues to be imperiled. Longfin smelt and delta smelt were once among the most abundant open-water fish in the estuary and are still an integral part of the food web. In the past decade this important longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers.
In addition to catastrophic declines in longfin smelt, major declines of delta smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass have been documented since 2002. Despite an increased Delta smelt abundance index in 2010 — probably the result of Endangered Species Act restrictions on water exports and improved hydrological conditions last year — this species continues to teeter on the edge of extinction. The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey caught zero Sacramento splittail this year, and only two fish have been caught in the past four years.
Major factors in the loss of longfin smelt, Delta smelt and other native fish populations in the Delta and Central Valley are the massive increases in water diversions and Delta water exports, toxic chemicals and pesticides, and disruption of the food web by invasive species. Federal and state agencies have allowed record levels of water diversions from the Delta in recent years, leaving insufficient fresh water to sustain native fish. Powerful agricultural interests and the state of California have derailed biological opinions by the federal Fisheries Service aimed at protecting Central Valley chinook salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and Delta smelt and promoted a peripheral canal and new dams to divert even more water from the ravaged Delta ecosystem.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with over 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org
The Bay Institute is the leader in protecting, restoring and inspiring conservation of San Francisco Bay and its watershed — from the Sierra to the sea. For 30 years, The Bay Institute has been developing and leading model scientific research, habitat restoration, education and advocacy programs to preserve California's most important natural resource. Learn more at www.thebayinstitute.org