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California Fish Species Plummet to Record Low Levels

By Dan Bacher, CounterPunch

Fish species ranging from endangered Delta Smelt to Striped Bass continued to plummet to record low population levels in 2015 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, according to the annual fall survey report released on Dec. 18, 2015 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Only six Delta Smelt, an endangered species that once numbered in the millions and was the most abundant fish in the Delta, were collected at the index stations in the estuary this past fall. The 2015 index (7), a relative number of abundance, “is the lowest in history," Sara Finstad, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Bay Delta Region, said.

Fish species ranging from endangered Delta Smelt to Striped Bass continued to plummet to record low population levels in 2015 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Photo credit: CounterPunch

The Delta Smelt, a 2 to 3 inch fish found only in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, is an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the Delta, an estuary that has been dramatically impacted by water exports to corporate agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies during the record drought, along with other factors including increasing water toxicity and invasive species.

The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey, used to index the fall abundance of pelagic (open water) fishes most years since 1967, conducts monthly surveys from September through December. The 2015 sampling season was completed on Dec. 11.

“In September, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in the lower Sacramento River," Finstad said. “In October the only Delta smelt collected came from a non-index station in the Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel."

In November, no Delta Smelt were collected—and in December, the only Delta Smelt collected were from index stations in Montezuma Slough and the lower Sacramento River, according to Finstad.

The population of striped bass, a popular gamefish, has also declined to record low levels. The 2015 abundance index (52) is the second lowest in history. Only 42 age zero striped bass were conducted at the survey stations, noted Finstad.

Likewise, Longfin Smelt, a cousin of the Delta Smelt, declined to the lowest abundance index (4) in the history of the survey. Only three longfin smelt were collected at the index stations throughout the three-month period.

The abundance index (806) for Threadfin Shad, an introduced species from the East Coast that provides forage for larger fish, reached its eighth lowest level in survey history. The biologists collected 634 Threadfin Shad at the index stations.

Finally, the 2015 abundance index (79) for American Shad, a relative of the Threadfin Shad that is pursued by anglers on Central Valley rivers every spring, is the lowest in history of the survey. Only 59 American shad were collected at the index stations.

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said the fall survey shows the “continuing collapse of the estuary caused by the failure of the state and federal regulatory agencies to comply with the law."

“Every survey conducted, including the 20 mm Delta Smelt, spring Kodiak trawl, summer tow net and the fall midwater trawl surveys, shows record low levels of the fish surveyed," Jennings said.

He emphasized that in spite of the continuing record drought conditions, that water exports south of the Delta through the state and federal pumping facilities averaged 7500 cubic feet per second (cfs) over the past week. “The State Water Project pumps are averaging 5154 cfs, while the Central Valley Project Pumps are averaging 2360 cfs," Jennings added.

As fish populations continue to collapse, the California Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation are going forward with permit petitions to the State Water Resources Control Board to change the point of diversion on the Sacramento River to implement Gov. Jerry Brown's Delta Tunnels Plan, the so-called “California Water Fix."

Jennings and other public trust advocates point to these latest fish survey results—and the state and federal water agencies' permit petitions to divert more water from the Sacramento River at new diversion points—as just more evidence of the “capture of the regulators by the regulated."

The current collapse of Delta fish species occurs as part of a long-term decline. The operation of the state and federal water projects by the California Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation Reclamation has brought fisheries to historic lows.

Since 1967, abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 97.8, 99.9, 91.9, 98.5 and 97.8 percent, respectively. according to Jennings.

The natural production of Sacramento winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon has declined by 98.2 and 99.3 percent, respectively and are only at 5.5 and 1.2 percent of doubling levels mandated by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, California Water Code and California Fish & Game Code. To make matters even worse, more than 95 percent of endangered juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon perished in lethally warm water conditions on the upper section of the Sacramento River in 2014 and 2015, due to mismanagement by the state and federal water agencies.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

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The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.