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For Immediate Release, March 4, 2009

Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Longfin Smelt Listed as State Threatened Species
Delta Smelt Status Changed to Endangered;
Orcas and Salmon Also Suffer From Unsustainable Water Diversions

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— Acknowledging the complete collapse of native fish populations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the California Fish and Game Commission today voted to protect the longfin smelt as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act. The Commission also voted to change the state protected status of the delta smelt from threatened to endangered. The longfin smelt is a native fish that has dropped to record low numbers in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and is nearing extinction in other northern California estuaries. Numbers of delta smelt found in 2008 were the lowest in 42 years of surveys.

“Pollution and invasive species have played a role in the destruction of our native fish populations and the degradation of the Bay-Delta ecosystem, but the biggest culprit is the record-high water diversions from the Delta in recent years,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. According to Miller, federal and state regulatory agencies have failed to uphold the public trust in allowing unsustainable levels of water diversions, leaving insufficient fresh water to sustain native fish and the Delta ecosystem. “The effects are rippling up the food chain,” he added. “Formerly abundant species at the base of the food chain are being driven to extinction, Central Valley salmon runs have been crippled, and the endangered population of West Coast killer whales has been even been affected.”

Longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) were once one of the most abundant open-water fish in the San Francisco Bay-Delta and other Northern California estuaries, and they were a central component of the food web that sustained other commercially important and sport-fish species. The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is home to the largest and southernmost self-sustaining population of longfin smelt. Longfin smelt populations that in the estuaries and lower reaches of Humboldt Bay and the Klamath River have also declined and may now be extinct. Since 2000, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers. Since 2002, the delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) has plummeted to its lowest population levels ever recorded.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups petitioned for state endangered species protection for the longfin smelt in August 2007. The California Fish and Game Commission designated longfin smelt statewide as a candidate for threatened or endangered status in February 2008. In June 2007, the Commission designated the delta smelt as a candidate for uplisting.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups also petitioned for protection of the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population under the federal Endangered Species Act in August 2007. The conservation groups submitted a petition in 2006 to uplist the delta smelt's federal status to endangered, a change necessary to compel fisheries agencies to implement recommended actions to protect Delta habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has illegally delayed responding to these listing petitions. In May 2008, the Service made a positive 90-day finding on the longfin smelt petition, and the final listing determination was due in August 2008. The Service made a positive 90-day finding on the delta smelt petition in July 2008, and a final listing determination was due in March 2007.

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 documented catastrophic declines of delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass. The state's largest salmon run of Central Valley fall-run chinook is suffering from record decline. Federal fisheries managers cancelled commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California for the 2008 fishing season, a closure which will likely extend into the 2009 season. Numbers of white and green sturgeon in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River have also fallen to alarmingly low levels — the southern green sturgeon population was federally listed as threatened in 2006. The National Marine Fisheries Service released a report last month concluding that Delta water operations are devastating California's salmon populations, threatening the existence of the southern resident killer whale population, which depends on salmon for food.

Because federal and state agencies have so mismanaged the Bay-Delta, courts have begun to order changes in water export operations to protect fish populations. 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. In 2008, 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. In December 2008, fishing and water-quality protection groups filed a sweeping public trust lawsuit to end wasteful and unreasonable diversions of water from the Delta by the state and federal water projects and to protect endangered migratory fish and open-water fish species.

“Governor Schwarzenegger and water agencies are still pimping an expensive and environmentally devastating peripheral canal and new dams that would take even more water out of the Delta, worsening the fisheries crash and making Delta water more toxic,” said Miller.

In January, the California Department of Water Resources issued a questionable Negative Declaration for the impact of the ongoing operations of the State Water Project in the Delta on longfin smelt. The California Department of Fish and Game, without much public scrutiny, issued an equally questionable “take” permit to the Department for longfin smelt under the California Endangered Species Act, before the species was even listed. The permit runs until 2018 and features the dubious mitigation requirement of protecting a mere 80 acres of intertidal and wetlands habitats each year in exchange for ongoing killing of longfin smelt at the state pumps and water facilities. The permit can be viewed at: www.delta.dfg.ca.gov/data/longfinsmelt/documents/ITP-Longfin-1a.pdf.

For more information: www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/fish/longfin_smelt/index.html

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org


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