For Immediate Release, July 10, 2008
Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Feds Move Delta Smelt Toward Endangered Status
Delta Ecosystem and Native Fish on Brink of Collapse
SAN FRANCISCO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today made a positive initial finding on a petition to change the status of the critically imperiled delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) from threatened to endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Bay Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the Service in 2006 requesting a change in the federal listing. The finding is 25 months late, and a final listing determination is already 13 months overdue.
"We are seeing a cascading series of crashing Delta fish populations – delta smelt, longfin smelt, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail, striped bass – the warning bells are ringing loud and clear,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The ecological collapse of the Delta threatens more than just our native fish since millions of people depend on the Delta for drinking water, agriculture, and fishing.”
Delta smelt are an indicator of the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, and the smelt population has plummeted since 1993 when it was listed as threatened. Smelt abundance this summer is the fourth lowest on record since surveys began in 1959. 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 and the Delta ecosystem.
“The governor’s proposal to build more dams, as well as regulatory efforts to continue to allow record freshwater diversions from the Delta when most of our native fish species are struggling to survive, makes no sense,” said Miller. “The state and federal water projects need to change their operations to eliminate reverse flows in Delta channels and prevent further losses of fish at the pumps.”
In 2007 an Alameda County court ruled that the California Department of Water Resources had been illegally pumping water out of the Delta without a permit to kill delta smelt and other fish species listed under the California Endangered Species Act; a federal court also rejected a federal “biological opinion” allowing high water exports and ordered reduced Delta pumping. This spring a federal judge invalidated a water plan that would have allowed more pumping from the San Francisco Bay-Delta at the expense of five species of protected salmon and steelhead trout, and federal fisheries managers cancelled this year's salmon fishing season because of a record decline in spawning fish. The Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new biological opinion for the operation of the Delta pumps, expected to be issued in September.
Summer trawl surveys conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game show that the delta smelt population has recently collapsed and is near extinction. The four years of lowest smelt abundance on record have been from 2005 to 2008, and abundance is an order of magnitude smaller than in the early 1990s. The Delta Smelt Working Group, comprised of state and federal agency biologists, declared in 2007 that delta smelt are “critically imperiled” and that an "emergency response" is warranted.
The conservation groups also petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission in 2007 requesting a change in the state listing for delta smelt from threatened to endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. In June 2007 the Commission designated the delta smelt as a candidate for uplisting from threatened to endangered species status.
A change in the delta smelt’s federal and state status to endangered is necessary to compel fisheries agencies to protect the smelt and its Delta habitat. Delta smelt have been on the brink of collapse for the past four years, and specific management and recovery actions recommended by scientists have not been implemented by the agencies responsible for protecting this endangered species.
The San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, an ecologically important estuary that is a major hub for California’s water system, is now rapidly unraveling. Once-abundant fish species are in critical condition due to record-high water diversions, pollutants, and harmful nonnative species that thrive in degraded Delta habitat. Since 2002, scientists have also documented catastrophic declines of longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass. Numbers of white and green sturgeon in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River have fallen to alarmingly low levels as well, and the green sturgeon was federally listed as threatened in 2006.
In February the California Fish and Game Commission designated the longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) as a candidate species, the first step toward a formal listing as an endangered or threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act. The Commission also voted to adopt interim regulations to protect longfin smelt that will require water mangers 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 court decisions reducing Delta water exports to protect smelt. The conservation groups also petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt under the federal Endangered Species Act in August 2007. In May 2008 the Service made a positive initial finding on that petition.
More information on the delta smelt decline and the ecosystem collapse in the Delta can be found at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/fish/Delta_smelt/index.html.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.