Delta Smelt Population Improves As Canal Plans Ramp Up
By Dan Bacher
The abundance of endangered Delta smelt, an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the imperiled Bay-Delta ecosystem, was greater in 2011 than it has been any year since 2001.
Yet state fishery biologists note that population remains a small fraction of historical abundance. "The improvement is likely due in large part to higher than usual Delta outflow which resulted in more and better habitat," according to Marty Gingras, DFG fishery biologist, in a press release on December 23.
The high flows resulted in keeping the Delta smelt away from the state and federal pumping facilities in the South Delta, where millions of Sacramento splittail and other fish were killed this year. Only 51 Delta smelt were "salvaged" in the pumping facilities that export water to southern California water agencies and corporate growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in 2011.
It is exceptionally difficult to determine the actual number of Delta smelt, so Department of Fish and Game (DFG) biologists use survey data to develop “indices” of the species’ abundance, Gingras noted. An index is a number that is likely to vary in direct proportion to abundance.
The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey index of Delta smelt abundance was 343 this year while the index in 2010 was 29 and its record high was 1673 in 1970. "After a decade of record or near-record low annual abundance, the increased number of Delta smelt in 2011 is encouraging," said Gingras.
Delta smelt occur only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. The finger-sized fish was historically one of the most abundant in the Delta, but the species declined dramatically in recent years, due to massive water exports out of the Delta. It was listed as "threatened" under the California and Federal Endangered Species acts (ESA) in 1993. After a further decline due to increased water exports, the species was designated as "endangered" in 2010 under the California ESA.
Other fish numbers increase over 2010, but still low
The DFG survey also documented an improvement in striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad indices in 2011, but the numbers of these species are also just a fraction of historical abundance.
The striped bass index was 272 this year, compared to 43 last year and a record high of 19,677 in 1967. This year's index was the highest since 2006.
The longfin smelt index was 477 this year, compared with 191 last year and a record high of 81,737 in 1967. This year's index was the highest since 2006.
The threadfin shad index was 228 this year, compared with 120 last year and a record high 15,267 in 1997. This year's index was the third lowest in the history of the survey.
Finally, the American shad index was 894 this year, compared with 683 last year and a record high of 9,360 in 2003. This year's index was the thirteenth lowest in the survey's history.
"Ongoing efforts to protect and recover the Delta smelt population include research on threats to the species, active management to minimize loss at water diversions under federal ESA biological opinions and a state ESA authorization, development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, improved water quality, habitat restoration and conservation of genetic diversity through special hatchery-rearing techniques," according to Gingras.
However, Delta advocates counter that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral canal to export more water to corporate agribusiness and southern California will actually result in the destruction of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations, rather than "protecting and recovering" them. All scientific evidence points to the fact that taking more water out of the system, as the BDCP aims to do, will result in the extinction of Delta and longfin smelt, Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, green sturgeon, Sacramento splittail and other imperiled species.
Why no mention of huge Delta fish kill?
Strangely missing from the DFG's press releases is any mention of the fact of the huge, unprecedented fish kill that took place at the Delta pumps this year. That state and federal government agencies “salvaged” a total of 11,158,025 fish in the Delta water pumping facilities between January 1 and September 7, 2011 alone.
A horrific 8,985,009 Sacramento splittail, the largest number ever recorded, were salvaged during this period, according to DFG data. The previous record salvage number for the splittail, a native minnow found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, was 5.5 million in 2006.
The fish “salvaged” at the “death pumps” of the state and federal water projects also include hundreds of thousands of threadfin shad, striped bass, American shad, white catfish and other species. DFG data reveals that 742,850 threadfin shad, 514,921 American shad, 496,601 striped bass and 100,373 white catfish were “salvaged” between January 1 and September 7 of this year.
Agency staff also "salvaged" 35,560 Sacramento River spring run and fall run chinooks, 1,642 Central Valley steelhead and 14 green sturgeon in the project facilities during the same period.
While no comprehensive studies have been conducted on how many of the salvaged fish survive, fish advocates believe that the majority of many species perish during and after the salvage process.
Although the salvage counts are certainly alarming, the overall loss of fish in and around the State Water Project and Central Valley Project facilities is believed to be much greater than the salvage counts. The actual loss could be 5 to 10 times the salvage numbers, according to “A Review of Delta Fish Population Losses from Pumping Operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta,” prepared by Larry Walker Associates in January 2010 for the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District.
A record year for water exports
The reason for the massive, unprecedented fish kill in the Delta pumps was the record amount of water exported out of the Delta this year by the Brown and Obama administrations. The pumps exported a record 6.5 million acre-feet of water in 2011, while the previous record was 6.3 million acre-feet in 2005.
"One of the reasons for the record-setting pumping is that much of the water this year went to refill the underground Kern Water Bank, largely controlled by billionaire farmer Stewart Resnick, and to the smaller Diamond Valley reservoir, which serves Southern California," according to Mike Taugher of the Contra Costa Times.
Caleen Sisk-Franco, the Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who is working on an innovative plan to restore winter run chinook salmon to the McCloud River above Lake Shasta, was appalled by the millions of fish killed in the state and federal water export facilities in 2011.
“I am just wondering why it is okay to have the largest fish kill going on in the Delta and no one notices,” said Sisk-Franco. “There are more endangered fish killed every day in the Delta pumps that are supposed to be protected. Try catching one of them to eat, and see how fast you get in trouble, but just let them swim into the Delta pumps and no one is trying to save them!”
Sisk-Franco asked, “How many dead fish is too many? Who will speak up for the fish? Everything is connected and soon we will understand what this fish kill means to the human beings.”
While the improvement in Delta smelt abundance this year is certainly a positive development, the alarming news about the record fish kill at the pumps this year and state and federal plans to fast-track the construction of an environmentally destructive peripheral canal or tunnel through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan overshadows this welcome information.
Governor Jerry Brown and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird have not only continued the abysmal environmental policies of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger by advancing Schwarzenegger's campaigns to build the peripheral canal under the BDCP and to set up controversial "marine protected areas" under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative. They have, in fact, exceeded the fish-killing policies of Schwarzenegger by authorizing record water exports and presiding over a record fish kill at the Delta pumps in 2011.
Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as "The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen."