Delta Smelt and other fish species plummet to record low levels

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by Dan Bacher, posted on Daily Kos.

Fish species ranging from endangered Delta Smelt to Striped Bass continued to plummet to record low population levels in 2015, according to the annual fall survey report released on December 18 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey, used to index the fall abundance of pelagic fishes most years since 1967, conducts monthly surveys from September through December. The 2015 sampling season was completed on December 11, according to Sara Finstad, an environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region.

Only 6 Delta smelt, an endangered species that was once most abundant fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, were collected at the index stations in the estuary. The 2015 index (7), a relative number of abundance, “is the lowest in history,” said Finstad.

The Delta Smelt, a 2 to 3 inch fish found only in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, is an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the Delta, an estuary that has been dramatically impacted by water exports to corporate agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies during the record drought.

“In September, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in the lower Sacramento River,” she said. “In October the only Delta smelt collected came from a non-index station in the Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel.”

In November, no Delta Smelt were collected – and in December, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in Montezuma Slough and the lower Sacramento River, according to Finstad.

The striped bass population has also declined to record low levels. The 2015 abundance index (52) is the second lowest in history. Only 42 age 0 striped bass were conducted at the survey stations, noted Finstad.

Likewise, Longfin Smelt, a cousin of the Delta Smelt, declined to the lowest abundance index in the history of the survey. Only 3 longfin smelt were collected at the index stations throughout the three-month period.

The abundance index for Threadfin Shad, an introduced species from the East Coast that provides forage for larger fish species, reached its eighth lowest level in survey history. The biologists collected 634 Threadfin Shad at the index stations.

Finally, the 2015 abundance index for American Shad is the lowest in history of the survey. Only 59 American shad were collected at the index stations.

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), said the fall survey shows the “continuing collapse of the estuary caused by the failure of the state and federal regulatory agencies to comply with the law.”

“Every survey conducted, including the 20 mm Delta Smelt, spring Kodiak trawl, summer tow net, and the fall midwater trawl surveys, shows record low levels of the fish surveyed,” said Jennings.

He emphasized that  in spite of the continuing record drought conditions, that water exports south of the Delta through the state and federal pumping facilities averaged 7500 cubic feet per second (cfs) over the last week. “The State Water Project pumps are averaging 5154 cfs, while the Central Valley Project Pumps are averaging 2360 cfs,” said Jennings.

As fish populations continue to collapse,  the California Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation are going forward with permit applications with the State Water Resources Control Board to divert Sacramento River water under Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels Plan, the so-called “California Water Fix.

Jennings and other public trust advocates point to these latest fish survey results — and the state and federal water agencies’ permit application to divert more water from the Sacramento River at new points of diversion — as just more evidence of the “capture of the regulators by the regulated.”