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For Immediate Release, April 8, 2009


Jonathan Rosenfield, The Bay Institute, (510) 684-4757
Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 385-5694

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Denies Protection for Highly Endangered San Francisco Bay-Delta Population of Longfin Smelt;

Agency Says It Will Study Protection of Species As a Whole

SAN FRANCISCO— In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Bay Institute, and Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today denied protection for the San Francisco Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt under the federal Endangered Species Act, determining that it does not qualify as a distinct population segment. Fish and Wildlife, however, announced it will look at the status of the species across its range, which includes the San Francisco Bay-Delta and a handful of other West Coast estuaries as far north as Alaska.

“Longfin smelt in the Bay have been at historic lows and need immediate protection to survive,” said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protection for the species as a whole may be too late for longfin smelt in the San Francisco Bay.”

Since 2000, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers. In March, the California Fish and Game Commission responded to state Endangered Species Act petitions submitted for the longfin and delta smelt and the Commission voted to protect longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act and also changed the state protected status of delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) from threatened to endangered.

“The longfin smelt was once among the most abundant fish in the open waters of the San Francisco estuary, and they were an integral part of this ecosystem’s food-web,” said Dr. Jonathan Rosenfield, conservation biologist at The Bay Institute. “The precipitous decline of longfin smelt, its distant cousin delta smelt, green sturgeon, steelhead, and two populations of Chinook salmon reveals an ecosystem collapse brought about by mismanagement of our freshwater resources and lax enforcement of our environmental laws.”

The San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, an ecologically important estuary and 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. 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.

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 have cancelled commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California for the second straight year due to low salmon returns. White and green sturgeon numbers 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.

Dr. Rosenfield, who has published scientific papers on the mechanisms behind and definition of distinct population segments said the Service’s determination was “incomprehensible based on the available science.”

“They presented no direct evidence to support their finding that longfin smelt from the San Francisco Bay Delta are not distinct from other populations.” said Dr, Rosenfield. “For example, populations of Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon in the Bay Delta are already recognized as distinct despite the fact that they are larger and longer-lived and thus more capable of inter-mixing with other populations—if they are regarded as distinct populations, it’s hard to believe that longfin smelt are not.”

Because federal and state agencies have so mismanaged the Bay-Delta, California’s largest and most important estuary, 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 protected salmon and steelhead trout.

For more information:
Longfin smelt:

The Bay Institute is a nonprofit organization that works to protect and restore the ecosystems of San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the rivers, streams, and watersheds tributary to the Estuary, using scientific research, public education, and advocacy.

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.

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