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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Central Valley | Environment & Forest Defense
Obama Administration Denies Protection for Sacramento Splittail
In spite of a decline to record low population levels in recent years, the Obama administration has decided to strip protections for the Sacramento splittail, a native minnow that lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Photo of adult splittail courtesy of University of California, Davis.
Obama Administration Denies Protection for Sacramento Splittail
by Dan Bacher
The Obama administration, in the footsteps of the Bush regime, decided on October 5 to deny protection for Sacramento splittail under the Endangered Species Act, even though this native species has declined to record low population levels in recent years.
The Sacramento splittail, a hardy native minnow, once swam in huge numbers in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven this formerly abundant species to near extinction.
A press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the splittail "does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)."
"The best available scientific information demonstrates no recent decline in the overall abundance of the splittail nor threats that rise to the level of being significant to the splittail at the population level," the federal agency claimed.
The service said the finding, to be published in the Federal Register on Oct. 7, 2010, is based on a "thorough evaluation of the current status and level of threat to the species. While habitat loss has occurred over the years, the existing data fail to show a significant long-term decline of the splittail. Available population data do not show an overall decline, but rather natural fluctuations demonstrating a pattern of successful spawning during wet years followed by reduced spawning during dry years."
“During flood years, Sacramento splittail can be one of the more abundant fish in the Delta,” claimed Dan Castleberry, Field Supervisor of the Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife Office. “Similarly, as you would expect, during drying periods, spawning is reduced, and the abundance of splittail, especially young splittail, can be low.”
The Service also echoed corporate agribusiness and Schwarzenegger administration claims that the collapse of Sacramento splittail and other Delta species including Central Valley salmon and Delta smelt has not been caused by massive exports of water out of the California Delta in recent years.
"Research has shown no evidence that south Delta water export operations have had a significant effect on splittail abundance, even though fish collection facilities can capture a large number of fish (up to 5.5 million) during wet years, when spawning on the San Joaquin River and other floodplains results in a spike in population numbers," the Service contended. "The number of splittail captured by these facilities drops during dry years when recruitment is low (1,300 in 2007; about 5,000 in 2008) and the splittail is most vulnerable."
The determination was the result of 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. In a statement reacting to the decision, the environmental group described the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's determination as "inexplicable."
"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," according to m the Center.
“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.”
Miller cited a recent independent 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.
For the first time ever, the Department of Fish and Game fall midwater trawl survey in the Delta in 2008 found not one single splittail! The index, a relative measure of abundance, for the splittail was only 1, the next lowest number of fish ever recorded, in both 2007 and 2009. Conservationists and fishermen, in the face of this overwhelming data showing the alarming decline of this species, are wondering how the Service could have possibly concluded that the splittail doesn't warrant listing under the ESA.
“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,” Miller quipped.
Conservation groups first petitioned for federal ESA 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 and agribusiness challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the splittail. In 2003 the Service, in a major Bush administration scandal, improperly removed the splittail from the threatened list despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain its protected status.
Bush administration official Julie MacDonald, former Interior deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, was found to have improperly tampered with the decision to remove the splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Although MacDonald was not involved in the initial 2003 decision by Fish and Wildlife Service officials to delist the species, she was "involved extensively and intimately" in the editing of the final decision. Her edits were "voluminous," including changes to the statistical analysis of splittail population data, the Interior Department Inspector General wrote in a investigation report on her activities released November 27, 2007.
MacDonald, who owned an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass - a floodplain that is key habitat for the splittail - edited the splittail decision in a manner that appeared to benefit her financial interests rather than the fish, according to Jeff Miller.
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.
In reality, it appears that the "Change" that Obama promised to the voters often amounts to either continuing Bush administration fish and water policies, or actually proceeding to the right of Bush, as in the case of "catch shares" and genetically engineered salmon.
The complete finding can be found at http://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/. For more information call, Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185.