Dwindling numbers earn Clear Lake fish species new protection

The Clear Lake hitch, once abundant in the shallow lake and a food staple of Native Americans for millennia, is struggling for survival after decades of dam-building, water diversion, mining and pollution have damaged or isolated most of its spawning grounds.|

A super-sized silvery minnow found only in Clear Lake is the newest threatened species in California, representing a victory for environmentalists and Indian tribes and a potential threat to Lake County ranchers and others who draw water from the lake’s tributaries.

The Clear Lake hitch, once abundant in the shallow lake and a food staple of Native Americans for millennia, is now struggling for survival after decades of dam-building, water diversion, mining and pollution have damaged or isolated most of its spawning grounds.

Last week, a coalition of Lake County citizens, tribes and an Arizona-based conservation group found a powerful ally in the California Fish and Game Commission, which unanimously approved a proposal to designate the hitch as a threatened species, a step that prevents any harm, even if it is incidental, to the fish.

As the first and only fish to gain state or federal protection in the Clear Lake basin, the hitch’s new status opens the door to potential limits or even prohibitions on water diversion, as well as possible requirements for expensive habitat restoration.

It’s the same principle that curtailed pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta into the California Aqueduct at the expense of Central Valley farmers and for the sake of endangered smelt. And it has Lake County agriculture interests on edge.

“There are some very deep concerns,” said Lake County Supervisor Anthony Farrington, whose district includes livestock ranchers and growers of grapes, pears and walnuts west of the lake.

Boating and fishing on the 68-square-mile lake are unlikely to be affected by the hitch’s new status, but water users along the surrounding creeks are wary, and communities drawing water directly from the lake could also be affected.

“This is a big deal. The hitch is already in trouble,” said Sonke Mastrup, the commission’s executive director. “It could have implications for water diversion - there’s no doubt about it.”

The state Water Resources Control Board will be the arbiter of any new limits on water rights, and the hitch’s designation establishes “a new priority to complaints alleging impacts to the fishery population or its habitat,” spokesman George Kostyrko said.

Water rights permit holders and applicants could be required “to implement mitigation projects that would have not been required previously,” he said.

Advocates for the hitch hailed the commission’s action, calling it long overdue.

“It’s questionable whether they are going to recover,” said Sarah Ryan, environmental director for the Big Valley Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, one of three tribes represented at last week’s commission meeting.

Clear Lake hitch, which grow up to a foot long and are one of only four native species left in the lake, are sacred to the Pomos, who have inhabited the area for 11,000 years and in recent times traditionally smoked and dried the fish at gatherings and festivals, she said.

As recently as the 1970s and ‘80s, hundreds of thousands of hitch swam in the ancient lake and surged every spring up all or most of the lake’s 17 tributary stream systems to spawn in shallow water. It’s not clear how many remain in the lake now, but researchers have said it is likely in the range of 5,000 to 10,000.

Dams, bridge abutments and other structures have limited most spawning to two systems, Adobe and Kelsey creeks, which flow into the west side of the lake.

A survey by citizens and tribe members in the spring of 2010 counted 10,000 fish in Kelsey Creek and 1,000 in Adobe Creek, while this year’s survey, in the third year of a statewide drought, found just 500 hitch in the two creeks.

“An alarmingly low number of fish,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group that asked the Fish and Game Commission two years ago to consider making the hitch a threatened species. “We might watch the species blink out in a few years if we don’t see a turnaround.”

A close relative of the hitch, the Clear Lake splittail, went extinct in the 1970s, a fate attributed to drought and the fact that it spawned later in the year, when less water runs through local streams.

Other native fish in Clear Lake have adapted to droughts, Miller said, but the hitch is struggling with the loss of more than 90 percent of its spawning habitat, as well as pollution from farming and mining and predation by some of the 14 nonnative species, including bass, introduced over the past century primarily to boost sport fishing.

Clear Lake, voted the third-best bass fishing lake in the United States, drew anglers to 132 authorized bass tournaments last year, according to a state Department of Fish and Wildlife assessment of the hitch’s condition.

Bass are “voracious predators” of hitch that congregate at the mouth of tributary streams during spawning season, Miller’s group said in its petition to protect the species. Hitch and bass were among the 15 species of Clear Lake fish and shellfish recommended for limited consumption because of mercury contamination in a state Environmental Protection Agency advisory in May.

But the lake’s economic importance, despite periodic blooms of stinking blue-green algae, is underscored by the tally of 11,230 boats visiting the water body in 2008. Jet skies and pleasure boats account for 40 percent of the boating activity on the lake, which has more than 600 private boat docks and boat ramps along its 100-mile shoreline, the Fish and Wildlife report said.

Ryan, the tribal environmentalist, acknowledged the concerns of water users related to the hitch’s protected status. “Those fears are definitely there,” she said, but California’s waterways are legally obligated to support fish as well as agriculture and domestic use.

Ryan said she hopes state regulators will evaluate water diversions from Clear Lake’s tributaries and possibly set standards for minimum stream flows, which do not currently exist. “Regulation really needs to be tightened up,” she said, suggesting that some creeks have been “over-appropriated” by legal permits and further taxed by illegal diversions.

Kelsey and Adobe creeks run through the Big Valley Rancheria’s ancestral lands, and tribal members have taken their children “hitching” for years. That activity has been drastically curtailed, she said.

If the hitch were to become extinct, Miller said, the impact on a complex system of prey and predators, native and nonnative species and human activities is impossible to predict.

“We don’t really have an answer to that,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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