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Northern California's Clear Lake Hitch Protected as Threatened Species
SAN DIEGO— The California Fish and Game Commission has designated the Clear Lake hitch — a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries — as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act. The decision came after the commission heard testimony Wednesday from conservationists and Pomo Indian Tribes around Clear Lake that the fish’s spawning runs in 2013 and 2014 were the worst in recorded history. Hitch are threatened by excessive water diversions, drought, loss and degradation of spawning habitat, barriers to fish migration and pollution as well as predation and competition from invasive fish species.
"We share this land and lake with the Clear Lake hitch and other native fish, plants and wildlife,” said Chairman Anthony Jack of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “The decision of the California Fish and Game Commission will set into motion mitigation measures and corrective actions that will begin to bring the lake back into balance. The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians will continue to work diligently to save our native species for the good of the people and the health of our land."
“These formerly abundant fish have been devastated over the years and need our help. State protection will catalyze habitat restoration around Clear Lake that we hope will begin to recover this unique fish,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to protect the hitch in 2012. “The top priorities for hitch are fixing fish passage barriers and setting minimum flow requirements for spawning streams. Restoring habitat for hitch will improve the health of Clear Lake and benefit the entire ecosystem.”
Hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. They were once so plentiful that millions of hitch clogged the lake’s tributaries during spectacular spawning runs. These biologically significant masses of hitch were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem, 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 now fewer than a thousand fish regularly spawn in only two streams — Kelsey and Adobe creeks south of Clear Lake.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s 2012 petition to protect the hitch documented significant declines in numbers of fish and the hitch’s disappearance from most former spawning streams around Clear Lake. The listing petition was 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 the University of California at Davis.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Photo: Clear Lake Hitch, Lavinia exilicauda, Richard Macedo / California Department of Fish and Game
August 7, 2014
Photo by Richard Macedo / California Department of Fish and Game
Clear Lake Hitch, Spawning, photo by Jeff Miller / Center for Biological Diversity