For Immediate Release, February 25, 2021

Contact:

Jeff Miller, (510) 499-1985, jmiller@biologicaldiversity.org

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Imperiled California Fish

Clear Lake Hitch Wrongfully Denied Endangered Species Protection by Trump Administration

CLEAR LAKE, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent today to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the Clear Lake hitch, a large minnow found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries. The Trump administration denied the fish protection in a December 2020 determination.

Under Trump appointee leadership, the Service asserted that major threats such as the loss of spawning habitat, climate change, drought, and predation and competition from introduced fish are “not likely to adversely affect the overall viability of the Clear Lake hitch in a biologically meaningful way.” This contradicts the conclusions of native fish experts, as well as findings by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game Commission.

“Relying on misinformation and climate change denial, Trump’s Interior Department denied protection to one of California’s most threatened native fish,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. “In contrast, the state of California protected the hitch as a threatened species based on sound science. The feds need to follow suit.”

A 2014 state status review for the hitch determined there has been significant degradation of its suitable habitat, with wetland habitat loss of 85%, spawning habitat loss of 92%, and degraded water quality throughout the lake and in most tributaries.

The state found that predation and competition by introduced fishes has a significant impact on hitch. It also predicted that climate change impacts to stream flows and hitch annual spawning cycles will be significant. And a 2013 report by California native fish experts concluded that hitch are “critically vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change.

“These fish once numbered in the millions, with spawning runs entering every tributary of Clear Lake in springtime. They were a foundation of the Clear Lake food chain, and now they’re reduced to a few thousand spawning fish during good water years, with regular spawning in only a few tributaries,” said Miller. “It’s the very definition of a threatened species, but Trump’s Interior Department chose to ignore the science.”

The federal finding claims the hitch do not require tributary streams to reproduce, but can also spawn successfully in Clear Lake itself, giving them “behavioral flexibility to variable environmental conditions.” But the state review concluded that hitch require tributary streams to successfully spawn, and a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey study concurred that within-lake spawning is not a significant source of Clear Lake hitch production and recruitment.

Background

Clear Lake hitch migrate out of the lake each spring, when adults swim up tributary streams to spawn. They were once so plentiful that millions clogged the lake’s feeder streams during their spectacular spawning runs. A staple food and cultural component for the original Pomo inhabitants of the region, Clear Lake hitch were also an important food source for numerous birds, fish and other wildlife.

Clear Lake hitch numbers have declined due to water diversions, climate change and drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution, and competition and predation from invasive fish species. The lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Much of the former stream and wetlands habitat that’s suitable for them has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede their 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 vastly reduced. Since 2013 the combined average number of spawning fish in the two most important tributaries, Kelsey Creek and Adobe Creek, has been under 1,700 fish.

Clear Lake hitch have adapted to a very brief period of suitable stream conditions for their annual spawning run. 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 closest relative of Clear Lake hitch was the Clear Lake splittail, a fish driven to extinction in the 1970s due to habitat alterations that dried out spawning streams, and barriers that prevented its spawning migration.

The Center submitted petitions in 2012 to protect the hitch under both the federal and state Endangered Species Acts. The California Fish and Game Commission designated the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened species under California’s state Endangered Species Act in 2014.

clear_lake_hitch_3_Lavinia_exilicauda_chi_Richard_Macedo_California_Dept_Fish_Game_FPWC.jpg
Clear Lake hitch (Lavinia exilicauda). Photo courtesy of 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.