California’s Clear Lake back on track for endangered species protection

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CLEAR LAKE, California– In a legal victory for the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today agreed to re-examine Endangered Species Act protections for the Clear Lake hitch. This large minnow is found only in Clear Lake in northern California.

In 2020, the agency wrongly denied protection for the coupler despite severe declines in fish spawning and near complete loss of tributary spawning habitat due to drought and water withdrawal.

“I am so pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to reconsider the protections for the critically endangered Clear Lake Hitch,” said Meg Townsend, freshwater attorney at the Center. “Vital to the Clear Lake ecosystem and the cultural heritage of the Pomo people, the hitchhiker is California’s most endangered native fish. These fish should never have been denied protection in the first place.

The Clear Lake hitch is only found in the lake that bears their name. The team was once so plentiful that it was easy to spot millions of them swarming in the lake’s feeder streams during their spectacular spring spawning grounds. Hitching has been a staple and cultural mainstay of the area’s early Pomo inhabitants for eons. The Clear Lake Hitch is also an important food source for many birds, fish and other wildlife. In recent years, however, only a few thousand fish have spawned.

“The Big Valley Pomo Indian Band is pleased to hear that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing the latest information available that shows a sharp reduction in the numbers of our chi-hitch from Clear Lake,” the president said. tribal Philip Gomez. “These native fish and others have always been important to our people, and we care for these lands and waters so that we can ensure their continued use by future generations. We urge the Service to use this best available science to catalog our chi so that they have a chance of survival.”

Because of the many threats these fish face, the Center submitted petitions in 2012 to protect the Clear Lake Hitchtrap under federal and state endangered species laws. The Clear Lake hitch was designated as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act in 2014.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 state review determined that suitable haulage habitat has been significantly degraded, with an 85% loss of wetland habitat important for ranching, 92% loss of stream spawning habitat and degradation of water quality in Clear Lake and most of its tributaries.

But despite clear scientific evidence that the hitchhiker is in danger of extinction, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, whose sole mission is to protect wildlife, has refused to protect the fish. Today’s agreement is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Center.

“The entire Clear Lake ecosystem will benefit if we can restore the stream habitat and recover these unique fish,” Townsend said. “Protection of the Federal Endangered Species Act is essential to ensure minimum flow for spawning streams, secure barriers to fish passage, reduce pollution, and restore wetlands.”

Background

The Clear Lake team migrate out of the lake each spring as adult fish swim up tributary streams to spawn. Their numbers have declined due to water diversions, climate change and drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migratory barriers, pollution, competition and predation from invasive fish species . The lake and its tributaries have been significantly altered by urban development and agriculture. Most of the lake’s stream and wetland habitat has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that prevent swamp migration have been built in many streams.

The 2013 to 2015 spawning runs were the worst in recorded history, with an annual average of less than 1,000 spawning fish in the entire Clear Lake basin. The number of spawners has increased somewhat since then, but is still well below historic levels. Since 2013, the average number of fish spawning in the two largest tributaries, Kelsey Creek and Adobe Creek, has been less than 1,700 fish per year.

The Clear Lake team has adapted to take advantage of a very brief window of stream conditions suitable for their annual spawning run. Water diversions cause streams to dry up prematurely earlier in the year. On May 10, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Lake County due to drought conditions. Rapid climate change due to global warming will likely lead to further spawning failures.

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