For Immediate Release
Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for Vanishing Northern California Fish
WASHINGTON - The Center for Biological Diversity today petitioned to protect the Clear Lake hitch — a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries — under both the federal Endangered Species Act and the state’s Endangered Species Act. Clear Lake hitch were once so plentiful they were a staple food for the original Pomo inhabitants of the region; they have declined precipitously as their habitat has been degraded and destroyed.
“Clear Lake hitch have long been an important part of the natural and cultural heritage of Clear Lake, but if they’re going to be around for future generations, we need to protect and restore their habitat to put them on the path to recovery,” said the Center’s Jeff Miller. “Hitch now spawn regularly in only two streams, and the entire population is vulnerable to water diversion and pumping, drought, invasive species and pollutants.”
Hitch migrate each spring, when adults make their way upstream in tributaries of Clear Lake to spawn before they return to the lake. Millions of hitch once clogged the lake’s tributaries during spectacular spawning runs; these biologically significant masses of hitch were a vital part of the Clear Lake ecosystem, an important food source for numerous birds, other fish and wildlife.
Hitch abundance has plummeted from millions of spawning fish historically to only a few thousand spawning today. The fish once spawned in every tributary to Clear Lake but now are able to spawn in significant numbers in only two streams in the Big Valley drainage south of Clear Lake, in Kelsey and Adobe creeks. They have declined due to loss of spawning habitat and nursery areas, migration barriers that block passage to spawning grounds, alteration of creek habitat, in-channel mining, temporary road-building through channels, water pumping, predation by and competition from introduced invasive fish, and the impacts of pollutants.
The closest relative of Clear Lake hitch was the Clear Lake splittail, which was driven to extinction by the 1970s through habitat alterations that dried out spawning streams and barriers that prevented fish migration.
”Without restoration of stream and wetland habitats and reintroduction into former spawning tributaries, Clear Lake’s hitch may go the way of the lake’s former splittail population,” Miller said. “We can’t let that happen.”
Clear Lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Much of the former stream and wetlands habitat suitable for hitch has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede hitch migration have been built in many streams that formerly had spawning. Hitch can no longer reach the majority of former spawning areas, and are forced to spawn opportunistically in ditches and wet meadows during high flows. Hitch reproduction has become sensitive to very localized events; a toxic spill or water-use issues of limited size could result in spawn failure for the entire population.
Few Clear Lake streams currently offer habitat that can be navigated by hitch, used for spawning, or offer passage for adults and fry to return to Clear Lake. Clear Lake hitch have adapted to a very brief period of suitable stream conditions for their annual spawning run, and water diversions have caused streams to prematurely dry up progressively earlier. Increased drought and rapid climate change due to global warming will likely accelerate this trend, causing further spawning failures.
The petition proposes recovery measures for hitch, such as removing or retrofitting barriers to fish migration, improving instream water flows, restoring fish to former spawning streams, and reducing predation by invasive fish near the mouths of spawning streams — actions that will also benefit many other native wildlife species in the Clear Lake basin.
At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.