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For Immediate Release, March 29, 2012

Contact:  Dr. Jon Rosenfield, The Bay Institute, (510) 684-4757
Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495
Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute, (415) 272-6616

Agency Finds Longfin Smelt Deserves Endangered Species Act Protection but Adds It to Waiting List

Key San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish Species Remains at Record-low Numbers

SAN FRANCISCO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today determined that the San Francisco Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt warrants protection under the federal Endangered Species Act — but, rather than provide those protections, the agency added it to a federal waiting list. Longfin smelt are a native fish and a critical component of the food web in the beleaguered San Francisco Bay estuary. Today’s decision comes in response to a lawsuit by conservation groups challenging the Service’s earlier determination that the San Francisco Bay population was not distinct from other populations in the species’ geographic range.

Although the Service found that the San Francisco Bay population of smelt is unique, it merely added longfin to the waiting list of candidate species, citing the need to address other potential listing actions that the Service feels are a higher priority.

“There is no higher priority than protecting one of the most endangered fish in the Bay-Delta,” said Dr. Jon Rosenfield, conservation biologist with The Bay Institute. “Drastic reductions in freshwater flows to the Bay drove longfin to the brink of extinction, and these massive diversions of freshwater continue to jeopardize the species today. We’re pleased the Service recognized that longfin smelt in San Francisco Bay are a distinct and independent population, uniquely important to the species as whole. But that recognition will be meaningless if longfin are allowed to go extinct while waiting for the flow and habitat protections they need to survive.”

Longfin smelt were once one of the most abundant open-water forage fishes in San Francisco Bay and the Delta; historically, they were so common that their numbers supported a commercial fishery. Longfin smelt are still a key component of the estuary food web, part of a prey base that supports commercially and recreationally valuable species such as Chinook salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

State surveys show that longfin smelt numbers in the Bay-Delta have plummeted to record lows since 2001, and that the species is nearing extinction in other Northern California estuaries. Decades of unsustainable water diversion in the Delta and its Central Valley watershed have dramatically reduced freshwater flow into the Bay by as much as 70 percent in the critical winter-spring period in recent years. The overuse of limited freshwater resources is the primary driver of the ecological collapse of California’s largest estuary ecosystem and of the unprecedented declines of longfin smelt and other flow-dependent native fish.

“Longfin smelt need protection now if they’re going to have any shot at survival,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Massive water grabs threaten the survival of not just the longfin smelt, but also salmon, fishermen and the entire Bay Delta Ecosystem. These water grabs, often at taxpayer expense, typically benefit a small number of corporate agribusinesses and are increasingly being funneled for urban sprawl in Southern California.”

In an unfortunate coincidence, direct mortality of longfin smelt at the South Delta export facilities of the state and federal water projects has accelerated over just the past week, jumping to more than 1,200 killed fish from about 300 a week earlier. And this direct measure of water export impacts on longfin smelt represents only the tip of the iceberg compared to the overall impact of water diversions on the quantity and quality of longfin smelt habitat downstream. For more background on the impact of export-related “salvage” at the south Delta pumps, download the Bay Institute’s report, Collateral Damage (, which was released earlier this week.

Conservation groups petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the San Francisco Bay-Delta population of longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) in 2007. In 2009, the Service denied federal protection to the Bay-Delta population while promising to look at the status of the species as a whole, claiming that Bay-Delta fish were not distinct. Expert fish biologists criticized the finding as “incomprehensible” and contrary to science, since these smelt do not interbreed with other remnant smelt populations in Northern California. The Center for Biological Diversity and The Bay Institute challenged the finding in a lawsuit, leading to today’s range-wide status review of longfin smelt, from California to Alaska. Experts on native fish have recommended Endangered Species Act protection for longfin smelt since the early 1990s

The state of California protected the longfin smelt as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act in 2009, but it issued a questionable exemption to the Department of Water Resources for the impacts of the ongoing operations of the State Water Project in the Delta on longfin smelt. That 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 losses of longfin smelt at the state pumps and water facilities and alteration of suitable habitat.


The Bay Institute is a non-profit research, education and advocacy organization dedicated to protecting, restoring and inspiring conservation of San Francisco Bay and its watershed, from the Sierra to the sea. Since 1981, The Bay Institute’s policy and scientific experts have worked to secure stronger protections for endangered species and habitats; improve water quality; reform how California manages its water resources; and promote comprehensive ecological restoration of the Bay-Delta estuary and watershed. Since 2009, The Bay Institute has partnered with Aquarium of the Bay to educate Californians about this unique ecosystem.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 350,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild. places.

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