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For Immediate Release, November 13, 2009

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

Lawsuits Filed to Secure Endangered Species Act Protection for Two Key Delta Fish Species

SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed two lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect two critically imperiled San Francisco Bay-Delta fish species, the longfin smelt and delta smelt. Responding to a 2007 petition under the Endangered Species Act, the Service in April 2009 improperly denied federal listing for the longfin smelt. The agency has also failed to respond to a 2006 petition to change the delta smelt's federal status from threatened to endangered.

“Formerly abundant fish at the base of the food chain in the San Francisco estuary are being driven to near extinction, and our once-healthy salmon runs have been crippled by record water diversions,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered Species Act protection will benefit not just longfin smelt and delta smelt, but also Central Valley salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead populations that are economically important to coastal and Central Valley communities. The public should reject the willful destruction of our fisheries and further mismanagement of the Delta proposed in the water bond and the peripheral canal legislation the governor signed this week.”

Longfin smelt and delta smelt were once among the most abundant fish in the open waters of the San Francisco estuary and still are an integral part of the San Francisco Bay-Delta food web. In the past decade this important longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers, and the delta smelt, a species already listed as threatened under state and federal endangered species laws, has plummeted to the lowest population levels recorded in more than four decades of surveys.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for federal Endangered Species Act protection for the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population in 2007. It also petitioned to change the delta smelt status to endangered in 2006. The Service has failed to make a final determination on the delta smelt petition, now two and a half years overdue. In April 2009 the Service denied listing for the longfin smelt population in the Bay-Delta, claiming it does not qualify for listing as a distinct population. In contrast, the California Fish and Game Commission responded to listing petitions submitted for both species by protecting longfin smelt as a state threatened species and changing the state protected status of delta smelt from threatened to endangered.

The Bay-Delta longfin smelt population is clearly distinct from other populations of the species. The Service’s determination was criticized by leading scientific experts on longfin smelt as “incomprehensible” and contrary to scientific information. Renowned native fish expert Dr. Peter Moyle urged the Service to reconsider its determination because it is based on misinterpretations of the best available evidence, including his own studies, and recommended an endangered or threatened listing.

This week Governor Schwarzenegger signed what is considered by conservation and fishing groups to be a death warrant for the Delta ecosystem, an $11.1 billion water bond bill that could lead to the construction of the peripheral canal and more dams. The bond will go before voters in 2010.

“The Delta ecosystem needs less water exported to save collapsing fish populations, but instead the governor has approved a policy package and budget-busting infrastructure that could increase water exports to subsidized corporate agribusiness and Southern California,” said Miller.

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 the past two years 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.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places.

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