For Immediate Release, April 14, 2022

Contact:

Meg Townsend, (971) 717-6409, mtownsend@biologicaldiversity.org

California’s Clear Lake Hitch Back on Track for Endangered Species Protections

Wrongly Denied Protection, Native Fish Teeters on Brink

CLEAR LAKE, Calif.— In a legal victory for the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed today to again consider Endangered Species Act protections for the Clear Lake hitch. This large minnow is found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake.

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

“I’m so glad the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to reconsider protections for the severely endangered Clear Lake hitch,” said Meg Townsend, freshwater attorney at the Center. “Vital to the Clear Lake ecosystem and the cultural legacy of the Pomo people, the hitch is California’s most imperiled native fish. These fish should never have been denied protection in the first place.”

Clear Lake hitch are found only in the lake bearing their name. The hitch were once so plentiful that it was easy to spot millions teeming up the lake’s feeder streams during their spectacular spring spawning runs. The hitch has been a staple food and cultural mainstay of the original Pomo inhabitants of the region for eons. Clear Lake hitch are also an important food source for numerous birds, fish and other wildlife. In recent years, however, only a few thousand fish have spawned.

"The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians is pleased to hear that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing the newest available information which shows a steep reduction in the number of our chi - the Clear Lake hitch," stated Tribal Chairman Philip Gomez. "These and other native fish have always been important to our people, and we take care of this land and waters so we can ensure their continued use by future generations. We urge the Service to use this best available science to list our chi so that they stand a chance of survival."

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 status review determined that suitable hitch habitat has degraded significantly, with an 85% loss of wetland habitat important for rearing, a 92% loss of stream spawning habitat, and degraded water quality in Clear Lake and throughout most of its tributaries.

But despite clear scientific evidence that the hitch is in danger of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose sole mission is to protect wildlife, denied protection to the fish. Today’s agreement is a result of a lawsuit by the Center.

“The entire Clear Lake ecosystem will benefit if we can restore stream habitat and recover these unique fish,” said Townsend. “Federal Endangered Species Act protection is crucial to ensuring minimum flows for hitch spawning streams, fixing fish passage barriers, reducing pollution and restoring wetlands.”

Background

Clear Lake hitch migrate out of the lake each spring when adult fish swim up tributary streams to spawn. Their numbers have declined because of water diversions, climate change and drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution, and competition and predation from invasive fish species. Both the lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Most of the lake’s stream and wetlands habitat has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede hitch migration have been built in many streams.

The spawning runs from 2013 to 2015 were the worst in recorded history, with an annual average of fewer than 1,000 spawning fish in the entire Clear Lake basin. Spawning numbers have increased somewhat since then but are still far lower than historic levels. Since 2013 the average number of spawning fish in the two most important tributaries, Kelsey Creek and Adobe Creek, has been under 1,700 fish annually.

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

RSAdobe_Creek_Clear_Lake_Hitch_Meg_Townsend_Center_FPWC
Adobe Creek, another of the hitch’s spawning stronghold streams, also devoid of water, March 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Meg Townsend, Center for Biological Diversity. Image is available for media use.
RSKelsey_Creek_Clear_Lake_Hitch_Meg_Townsend_Center_FPWC
Kelsey Creek, one of the hitch’s primary spawning streams devoid of water on March 10, 2022—when hitch are supposed to be spawning. Photo courtesy of Meg Townsend, Center for Biological Diversity. Image is available for media use.
clear_lake_hitch_3_Lavinia_exilicauda_chi_Richard_Macedo_California_Dept_Fish_Game_FPWC.jpg
Clear Lake hitch. Richard Macedo / California Department of Fish and Game. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

 

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