SAN FRANCISCO— Forced by a Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit and settlement agreement to revisit a tainted Bush-era decision to strip Endangered Species Act protection for the Sacramento splittail, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today issued an inexplicable determination that listing this critically imperiled fish species, native to the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay-Delta, is not warranted. The Service’s decision is indefensible, since the splittail population has dramatically declined in numbers since 2002 and collapsed to barely detectable numbers in the past few years. The Bush administration improperly stripped Endangered Species Act protections for the splittail in 2003, which was formerly protected as a federally threatened species.
“It’s a pretty outrageous decision, given that the splittail population has crashed in recent years along with almost every other native fish species in the Bay-Delta and the Central Valley, and numbers of splittail found in annual surveys are at record low numbers,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Sacramento splittail is nearing extinction and the Service’s decision was certainly not based on good science or common sense and did not take into account the severe threats to the splittail and its habitat in the Delta and Sacramento River floodplains. We will definitely challenge this decision.”
A recent analysis of splittail population trends by the Bay Institute, using updated data from five sampling programs that collect splittail in the estuary, shows that there has been a significant decline in the abundance of splittail in the estuary during the past several decades. The estimated numbers of splittail have fallen to consistently low levels since 2002, and the estimated abundance from 2007 to 2009 has been the lowest recorded since surveys began in 1967. The Bay Institute’s analysis of survey data shows that the splittail is declining in abundance and at risk of becoming endangered, and that its geographic range and habitat have been curtailed and its resilience has been reduced. The institute concluded that existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to protect the species and it habitat and without Endangered Species Act protections for key habitats, conditions for splittail are likely to get worse.
“President Obama promised that under his watch environmental decisions would be made based on sound science, but the Fish and Wildlife Service under Ken Salazar doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo yet,” said Miller.
Conservation groups first petitioned for federal Endangered Species Act protection for the splittail in 1992, after the population crashed, and the Service proposed listing the species in 1994. But the agency delayed listing until a Center lawsuit and court order forced it to take action. In 1999 the splittail was listed as a threatened species. After litigation by water agencies challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the splittail. In 2003 the Service improperly removed the splittail from the threatened list despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain its protected status. In 2009 the Center filed a lawsuit against the Service challenging this action, part of a larger campaign to undo Bush-era decisions that weakened protections for dozens of endangered species. The Service agreed earlier this year to make a new finding on whether listing the splittail is warranted.
The Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys macrolepidotus) is a minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley. Splittail are primarily freshwater fish but can tolerate moderately salty water. They are found mostly in slow-moving marshy sections of rivers and dead-end sloughs, though floodplains are important for spawning. Splittail once occurred in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley as far north as Redding on the Sacramento River and as far south as the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven the species to near extinction. Formerly common in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Feather, and American rivers, the splittail has been eliminated from all but a fraction of its former range and now is largely restricted to the Delta, Suisun Bay, Suisun Marsh, and Napa Marsh.
The splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley are threatened by excessive water diversions, pesticides and other contaminants, and changes to the food web from introduced species. The splittail is also suffering from loss of floodable habitat area needed for spawning and rearing. The remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation to thrive.
Unsustainable water diversions from the Delta have caused the collapse of many fish runs in the Delta and Central Valley. Since 2002, delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass have declined catastrophically and the state’s largest salmon run of Central Valley fall-run chinook is suffering from record decline, forcing cancellation and curtailment of commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California. White and green sturgeon numbers in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River have also fallen to alarmingly low levels. The southern green sturgeon population was federally listed as threatened in 2006.