Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Splittail re-review re-completed for Delta

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Sacramento splittail fish doesn't get protection under the Endangered Species Act.

You might remember this fish from the Bush Administration. His fellow bay-dweller the smelt is the one getting famous. But a fight over the splittail was one venue where longtime scientists and politicians charged that political decisions threatened the science when a Sacramento supervisor overruled biologists take the splittail off the threatened list, and then DC-based Interior Assistant secretary Julie MacDonald made numerous edits to a 2003 decision that removed the splittail from the threatened list:

The Sacramento splittail, a small fish found only in California's Central Valley, depends on floodplain habitat and has been described by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as facing "potential threats from habitat loss."

"It looks like another Bush administration official was protecting her own bottom line instead of protecting the public interest," said Miller, a senior member and former chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and a long-time proponent of the Endangered Species Act and Bay-Delta fish and wildlife issues.

That decision became one of eight that FWS did a do-over for. And this time, they say they've got a different understanding of the science.

Basically, what federal fish and wildlife scientsts say is that they've figured out a better way to count the splittail. Before, they were using straight surveys. Those were showing a pretty substantial decline in the population of splittail. But then in 2004 longtime Delta biologist Peter Moyle wrote a paper that's proven very influential, at least to FWS.

"I think because of the fluctuation in their numbers its hard to determine a long term trend. There wasn't a long term trend that we can discern," said Dan Castleberry, field supervisor for the service's San Francisco Bay-Delta field office, as he spoke to reporters on a conference call.

Last time around there was a concern about habitat loss. This time, Castleberry said "The very long term trend is reduction of spawning habitat and many of those changes occurred long long ago with construction of the levees and what's happened with the lower San Joaquin Delta." But he added that habitat is recovering. "Although a long term trend is reduction in habitat, we're seeing a stabilization and increase in spawning habitat."

Mike Taugher with the Contra Costa Times reported MacDonald's involvement with the splittail decision. The Bay Institute's Tina Swanson tells him now:

"I don't see this conclusion being scientifically justified," said Tina Swanson, executive director of the Bay Institute and an expert on Delta fish. Swanson called the decision "inexplicable."

The Center for Biological Diversity, who sued about the determination in the last round, is pretty torqued out too.

"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."

As for the reason this is happening? Taugher's analysis:

Including it on the list would add a layer of complication to an already dizzying set of issues in the Delta, where a biological collapse is putting pressure on water supplies statewide.

Whether or not the decision is well-founded seems to rest on the question of the relative value of surveys and computer modeling. This time around the FWS said that surveys weren't accurate. It's still early to tell whether they're right.

The decision gets published in the Federal Register on October 7.