CLEAR LAKE — The time is fast approaching when a native fish species known as the Clear Lake hitch should begin their yearly run up tributaries around the lake to produce a new generation of young.
Pomo elders and old-timers say the hitch, or “chi,” as they are known by the region’s Indigenous people, once spawned in such abundance that people could practically walk across their backs in the creeks.
For the region’s tribal members, the spawning time was cause for celebration — a reason for tribal folk from all around to gather, collect food for the year and visit.
But all that was before expanding development and agriculture, declining water quality, gravel mining, invasive species, habitat loss and extended drought took a toll on the hitch, a species of minnow found nowhere else on earth.
“There was a time not long ago when people, native people, would come from Sonoma, Mendocino, Sacramento area, up north, and camp around these creeks we’re talking about and in that place would meet other tribal people,” said Ron Montez Sr., 72, tribal historic preservation officer for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians.
“And they would trade and look for new husbands and wives and share their stories around this fish that we’re talking about.”
Locals would pack up their cars and trucks, or jump on their bikes and rush to the creeks to start grabbing the fish with their siblings and cousins, surrounded by aunts, uncles and grandparents, who would hang and dry the chi, for the future, Montez said.
It was a time for bonding, he said, and in “the act of gathering this fish, there was such a community sharing of values.”
The last of a species?
Recent years have seen hitch — which grow to more than a foot long and almost a pound in weight — stranded in dry streams or disconnected pools, their eggs desiccating in the sun. It has resulted in the worst “recruitment,” or survival of young to adulthood, in known history.
Now, after five years of plummeting recruitment, many fear the fish are so close to extinction that the 2023 spawning season could mark the last chance to ensure their survival.
The result is a rapidly mobilized, urgent push to galvanize government agencies and the public to save the hitch — or risk losing them for good.
Led by Lake County tribes and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the campaign has gained momentum in recent months, driven by devastating federal surveys from the past two years that reflect the complete crash of what already had been a rapidly diminishing population.
“This is a situation that is moving much faster than we are moving as a state agency,” Felipe La Luz, senior environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife told Lake County supervisors in January.
But the issues, he said, “do not fall under the purview of any single entity, and it’s going to take all of us to make sure this species remains on the landscape.”
“The mantra, the logo, the refrain that we’ve all been saying for most of last summer and through now is, ‘No more loss of species on our watch,’” said Sarah Ryan, environmental director for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians. “We don’t want to have the Clear Lake hitch go extinct. And once we heard from the state biologists that unless some big, big things change, we will most likely lose the species, it really threw us into high gear.”
In the moment, the most urgent call is for growers and landowners to reduce groundwater pumping and surface water diversions around spawning creeks — especially the strongholds of Kelsey and Adobe creeks, which run through the fertile Big Valley area near Kelseyville — so there’s sufficient water left for potentially reproductive fish.
But the problem is multifaceted, and likely linked to conditions in Clear Lake, as well. It is likely to grow only more challenging as climate change brings increasingly extreme weather.
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