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For Immediate Release, March 24, 2009


Jonathan Rosenfield, The Bay Institute, (510) 684-4757
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Feds Stall as State Moves Forward on Increased
Legal Protections for Endangered Delta Fish

SAN FRANCISCO— The Bay Institute and Center for Biological Diversity today filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to make final determinations on federal Endangered Species Act listing petitions submitted for two critically imperiled San Francisco Bay-Delta fish species: longfin smelt and delta smelt. Due to inaction by the Bush administration, which blocked processing of the listing petitions, a final determination on the petition to list the Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt is seven months overdue, and a final determination on changing the status of the delta smelt from threatened to endangered is two years overdue.

“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 strong legal protections of the Endangered Species Act are needed to force state and federal regulators to take actions to save our native fish,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unsustainable record water diversions from the Delta are driving formerly abundant species at the base of the food chain to extinction and crippling Central Valley salmon runs.”

Since 2000, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers. Since 2002, the delta smelt, a species already listed as threatened under the state and federal endangered species acts, has plummeted to its lowest population levels ever recorded. Numbers of delta smelt found in 2008 were the lowest in 42 years of surveys.

The conservation groups petitioned for federal protection for the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population in August 2007. In May 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service made a positive 90-day finding on the petition. The final listing determination was due in August 2008. 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. A final listing determination was due in March 2007. The Service made a positive 90-day finding on the petition in July 2008.

“The Bush administration deliberately delayed and blocked needed protections for dozens of endangered species, including the longfin smelt,” said Miller. “We’re hoping the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration will move quickly to enact protections for the smelt and take steps to restore the Delta’s fisheries.”

The California Fish and Game Commission has responded somewhat more proactively to state Endangered Species Act petitions submitted for the longfin and delta smelt. Earlier this month, 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.

“With present trends, the delta smelt will go extinct soon if we do not ratchet up protections and protect its habitat,” said Miller. “Federal and state agencies are not only failing to address the problem, but are moving forward with plans for diversions and storage projects that will increase the threats and further degrade Delta habitat.”

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.

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:
Delta 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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