|Federal protection sought for delta smelt
Dwindling numbers prompt scientists' push for action
By JULIANA BARBASSA
FRESNO - A tiny, nearly see-through fish once common in the waters feeding the San Francisco Bay should be listed as endangered immediately to protect it from extinction, environmentalists told the federal government Wednesday.
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The number of delta smelt has declined precipitously in the past decade, down to 2.4percent of the population found in 1993, when the species was listed as threatened, according to scientists with Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bay Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity.
If the delta smelt doesn't get additional protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, it could disappear within a few years, according to the request filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Officials with the Sacramento office of the federal agency said they'll need some time to fully review the 42-page petition but promised to consider it.
"The Service is determined to take the actions necessary to save and restore the smelt, and that is where we are focusing our energies," said Al Donner, spokesman with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency is beginning a review of their recovery plan for the delta smelt, and would re-evaluate the fish's status as part of that process, Donner said.
The fish is considered an indicator of ecological well-being of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta and the bay. Other species, including the striped bass, other types of smelt and sturgeon, also have dwindled significantly, scientists said.
"This is a potent indicator that ecological conditions in the San Francisco Bay estuary are severely impaired," said Tina Swanson, senior scientist with the Bay Institute.
It's not only fish that depend on the delta, where salty water from the Pacific meet the snowmelt flowing down from the Sierra Nevada.
Its meandering canals are the heart of northern California's water system.
Giant pumps run by state and federal agencies send delta water to as many as 23million users, from the irrigated farm fields in the Central Valley to homes as far south as Los Angeles.
Part of the threat facing the smelt is competition from so many other sources.
The pull of the pumps is so strong it can suck in young smelt, confuse migrating fish like salmon as they try to move between rivers and the ocean and degrade the quality of water left behind, scientists have said.