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For Immediate Release, March 7, 2013

Contact:  Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 699-7357
Sarah Ryan, Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, (707) 263-5277 x105

Vanishing Clear Lake Fish Becomes Candidate for California Endangered Species Act Protection

CLEAR LAKE, Calif.— The California Fish and Game Commission has voted 2-1 to designate the Clear Lake hitch — a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries — as a candidate species for protection under California’s state Endangered Species Act. The commission, in its decision Wednesday, cited evidence from a Center for Biological Diversity listing petition of significant decline in numbers of fish and of the fish’s disappearance from most former spawning streams. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will now conduct a formal review of the status of the hitch, with a final decision on whether to list the species as threatened due this fall.

Clear Lake hitch
Photo courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Photos are available for media use.

“These are culturally, biologically important fish, and state protection is one of the keys to saving them. Restoring their habitat will improve the health of Clear Lake overall,” said the Center’s Jeff Miller. “Hitch now spawn regularly in only two streams, so we’re in real danger of losing these iconic Clear Lake fish. We need measures right away to improve stream flows, stop the loss and degradation of spawning habitat, and address the problems of barriers to fish migration, pollution and the impacts of invasive fish.”

“This is a promising move on the part of the Fish and Game Commission. The Clear Lake Tribes have been actively engaged in studying and protecting the Clear Lake hitch since 2005,” said Anthony Jack, Tribal Chairman of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians will continue to assist in protecting the few native species left in our region — the benefits to the ecosystem will be felt by all.”

The listing petition and status review were supported by Pomo Indian Tribes around Clear Lake (Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, and elders from the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians), the California Indian Environmental Alliance, Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch — a local organization formed in 2004 to protect and restore hitch — and California native fish expert Dr. Peter Moyle of the University of California at Davis.

Hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. They were once so plentiful that millions of hitch clogged the lake’s tributaries during spectacular spawning runs. These biologically significant masses of hitch were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem, an important food source for numerous birds, other fish and wildlife. They were also a staple food and cultural component for the original Pomo inhabitants of the region. Hitch once spawned in every tributary to Clear Lake, but now a few thousand fish regularly spawn in only two streams, Kelsey and Adobe creeks south of Clear Lake.

Hitch have declined due to loss of spawning habitat and nursery areas, migration barriers that block passage to spawning grounds, alteration of creek habitat, in-channel mining, temporary road-building through channels, water pumping, predation by and competition from introduced invasive fish, and the impacts of pollutants.

The closest relative of Clear Lake hitch was the Clear Lake splittail, which was driven to extinction by the 1970s through habitat alterations that dried out spawning streams and barriers that prevented fish migration.

Clear Lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Much of the former stream and wetlands habitat suitable for hitch has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede hitch migration have been built in many streams that formerly had spawning. Hitch can no longer reach the majority of former spawning areas, and are forced to spawn opportunistically in ditches and wet meadows during high flows. Hitch reproduction has become sensitive to very localized events; a toxic spill or water-use issues of limited size could result in spawn failure for the entire population.

Few Clear Lake streams currently offer habitat that can be navigated by hitch, used for spawning, or offer passage for adults and fry to return to Clear Lake. Clear Lake hitch have adapted to a very brief period of suitable stream conditions for their annual spawning run, and water diversions have caused streams to prematurely dry up progressively earlier. Increased drought and rapid climate change due to global warming will likely accelerate this trend, causing further spawning failures.

The listing petition proposes recovery measures for hitch such as removing or retrofitting barriers to fish migration, improving instream water flows, restoring fish to former spawning streams, and reducing predation by invasive fish near the mouths of spawning streams — actions that will also benefit many other native wildlife species in the Clear Lake basin.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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