SAVING THE CLEAR LAKE HITCH
Found only in Northern California's Clear Lake and its tributaries, the Clear Lake hitch isn't your average-sized minnow: It weighs in at almost a pound. Hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. Millions of hitch once clogged the lake's tributaries during spectacular spawning runs, and these biologically significant masses were a vital part of the lake's ecosystem, an important food source for numerous birds, other fish and wildlife. Hitch, or chi, were once so plentiful that they were a staple food for the Pomo tribes of the Clear Lake region.
Clear Lake hitch have declined precipitously in abundance as the ecology of their namesake lake has been altered and degraded. By the time regular surveys of hitch spawning began, hitch abundance had plummeted one-hundred fold. Now only a few thousand hitch make the annual spawning run. The fish once spawned in every tributary to Clear Lake but now are able to spawn in significant numbers in only two streams in the Big Valley drainage south of Clear Lake, in Kelsey and Adobe creeks. 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.
In 2012 the Center petitioned to protect Clear Lake hitch under both the federal Endangered Species Act and the California Endangered Species Act. In response to our state petition, California protected them as a threatened species in 2014.
The road to federal protection has been much longer and harder. Despite severe declines in spawning fish and a near complete loss of tributary spawning habitat due to drought and water withdrawal, in 2020 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that protecting the hitch under the U.S. Endangered Species Act was "not warranted" — a determination based on misinformation contradicting the conclusions of native fish experts, as well as findings by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game Commission.
Following a Center lawsuit, in spring 2022 the Service agreed to reconsider protecting Clear Lake hitch by Jan. 15, 2025. But the situation is dire. So in December 2022, we joined Pomo allies to urge Interior Secretary Debra Haaland and the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect Clear Lake hitch on an emergency basis.
We'll keep fighting to get these special fish the federal protections they need to escape extinction.