Delta Smelt Listed as Endangered

The California Fish and Game Commission today officially qualified two species of freshwater fish for special protection under the California Endangered Species Act.

Longfin smelt. Photo: NOAA
Photo: NOAA

The Commission listed the delta smelt as “endangered” and the longfin smelt as “threatened,” a lesser classification. Both are denizens of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have long been at the center of controversy over water diversions from the Delta. According to the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity:

“The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is home to the largest and southernmost self-sustaining population of longfin smelt. Longfin smelt populations that inhabit the estuaries and lower reaches of Humboldt Bay and the Klamath River have also declined and may now be extinct. Since 2000, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers. Since 2002, the delta smelt has plummeted to its lowest population levels ever recorded.”

CBD was among the environmental groups that petitioned the state for listing of the longfin in 2007. Delta smelt have been protected as a “threatened” species since last year but today that designation was escalated to “endangered.” The Center has also petitioned for–but has yet to attain–federal listing for both species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The listing could have major implications for water supplies this year. Court decisions in favor of the fishes have already forced reductions in water pumped out of the Delta for diversion to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The rulings have prompted some to characterize subsequent reduced water deliveries as a “regulatory drought.”

Delta Smelt Listed as Endangered 4 March,2009Craig Miller

8 thoughts on “Delta Smelt Listed as Endangered”

  1. Good to hear that the delta smelt is being taken seriously. However, in this article you indicate that it is a denizen of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

    I believe a denizen to be the definition of a resident alien. I have been working with the delta smelt under the impression that it was endemic to California. Wouldn’t a denizen imply that it was an introduced species that has become a resident?

    1. Well, my dictionary (American Heritage, 4th ed.) just defines “denizen” as “an inhabitant; resident.” I’ve never heard it used in the other context you mention. Sorry if that caused any confusion.

  2. Is it true that CA farmers cannot irrigate their fields because of the status of this fish?

    1. It’s true that many farmers are getting radically reduced allocations of water this year from both state-and-federally-run water systems. Those systems are highly dependent on the Sacramento River watershed, of which the Delta is a part. In response to lawsuits from environmental groups, recent court decisions have placed restrictions on the volume of water that can be siphoned out of the Delta and diverted south for irrigation. That’s another layer on top of two years of reduced mountain runoff that feeds the Sacramento. So the protected status of the fish is one variable in a complex system that determines how much water goes to the farms.

  3. And here’s a related development–different watershed, different fish, same issue:

    Coho killed after water diverted to protect crops

    The Associated Press

    HEALDSBURG, Calif.—Officials say endangered coho salmon were killed after a sudden drop in the water level of a Russian River tributary this week due to the siphoning of water used to protect crops from frost damage.

    The fish deaths come as a multi-agency task force is set to meet on Tuesday in Sacramento, where officials will discuss how to protect crops from the cold without threatening fish in the Russian River system.

    Dan Torquemada of the National Marine Fisheries Service says his agency, the state attorney general and the Sonoma County district attorney are all investigating this week’s fish kills.

    Last year another fish kill occurred, prompting Tuesday’s meeting.

    The fish die when farmers pump water for frost protection, causing water levels in the Russian River and some of its tributaries to fall dramatically, stranding the fish.

  4. These Fish are going to be the ruin of the nations food supply. No one will even notice until an orange is over 5.00 usd. That’s per orange just like in Japan. So all you Tofu eating tree hugging,Smelt Fish Kissing, Green Tea drinking Yuppies can sleep good at night knowing that you just turned this green fertile state into another dust bowl. Maybe you could afford to drive your BMW To the store and Buy Produce from Ecuador for inflated prices but the rest of us cannot!

  5. I am currently unemployed and lower middle class, anything but a yuppie, and totally support the Fish and Wildlife Service in their protection of the smelt fish. So, to Firefly: you are wrong in your assertion that only yuppies who drive BMWs support the smelt fish protections. Support also comes from any decent human being with morals and a conscience who doesn’t want the environment and its wonderfully diverse species raped and killed because of business greedheads. There is an actual declaration by Dr. Jeffrey Michael, a UOP Economics Professor, who has compiled economic data showing that agribusiness claims of harm from the “drought” and pumping restrictions are greatly exaggerated and the total number of farm jobs in the San Joaquin Valley actually increased in the past two years. Hardly the doomsday economic scenario you project, Firefly.

  6. Avis I respect and am sorry that you are in the same financial state that I am in. Nobody wants to rape or kill those fish.However I believe those figures that you so righteously quote are greatly exaggerated by someone who knows nothing about agriculture. The Good Dr.Jeffrey Michael, may have been paid off to skew those very numbers by the very same greedy environmental lobbyist that have all to gain and nothing to loose except future funding from Washington under a green guise if those pumps are turned on. Tell me Avis… If you think your broke and can barely afford Food for your family now wait for a couple of years and see how much fresh produce will cost 2-5 years from now. Truthfully these lobbyist are trading one environmental disaster for another only instead of the extinction of a lower form of species they are going to sacrifice the higher ones first…You and I. Lets face it they are not Mammoths or do,do birds they are only a fresh water variety of sardine. In closing I mean you ill will but seriously Ill tell you what… Avis when this valley goes dry a few years from now and were all starving maybe we can all go fishing and eat them little buggers into extinction? Maybe then the water will begin to flow again.

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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