Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 9, 2015

Contact: Jeff Miller, (510) 499-1985,

California's Clear Lake Hitch Closer to Federal Endangered Species Protection

Large Minnow That Once Spawned in Millions Has Dwindled to Hundreds

CLEAR LAKE, Calif.— In response to a Center for Biological Diversity petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that protecting the Clear Lake hitch — a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries — under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted. Clear Lake hitch were once so plentiful they were a staple food for the original Pomo inhabitants of the Clear Lake region, but have declined to near extinction due to water diversions, drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution and invasive fish species.

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

“The entire Clear Lake ecosystem will benefit if we can restore stream habitat and recover these unique fish,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal Endangered Species Act protection is crucial to ensuring minimum flows for hitch spawning streams, fixing fish passage barriers, reducing pollution and restoring wetlands.”

The Center submitted petitions in 2012 to protect the hitch under both the federal and state Endangered Species Acts. The petitions were supported by the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, elders from the Robinson Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, California Indian Environmental Alliance and California native fish expert Dr. Peter Moyle of U.C. Davis. The Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct a one-year status review and make a final determination whether to protect hitch under the federal Act.

Clear Lake hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. The spawning runs in 2013 and 2014 were the worst in recorded history, with only a few hundred fish spawning in two streams. In 2014 the California Fish and Game Commission designated the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act. Numbers of spawning hitch in 2015 are also very low.

Clear Lake hitch were once so plentiful that millions clogged the lake’s tributaries during their spectacular spawning runs. These masses of fish were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem and an important food source for numerous birds, fish and other 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 have disappeared from most former spawning streams. Now fewer than a 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.

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 some 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 spawning failure for the entire population.

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.

Few Clear Lake streams currently offer habitat that hitch can navigate and use for spawning before returning 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.

Recovery measures needed for hitch include 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.

Read more about Clear Lake hitch.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Go back