State panel backs protecting Clear Lake minnow
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
The once plentiful fish known as the Clear Lake hitch will get special protections and intensive study now that the state Fish and Game Commission has voted to make it a candidate for listing as an endangered species.
The fish, a member of the minnow family, was once a major food source for the Pomo tribes that lived in Lake County, but researchers say the population has declined precipitously in recent decades.
“There used to be so many that people would sit at the edge of the creeks and scoop them out with their hands but now we're at a point where they are only running in a couple of tributaries of Clear Lake,” said Sarah Ryan, environmental director of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians.
The commission voted 2-1 to make the fish a candidate for endangered status, commission Deputy Executive Director Adrianna Shea said. That will set off a one-year study period in which researchers for the Department of Fish and Wildlife will examine the condition of the fish population and prepare a recommendation as to whether the commission should add the fish to the list.
In the meantime, the fish will enjoy the same protection as species already on the endangered list: no commercial or recreational harvest and businesses that might harm the fish will need to apply for state permits.
The only dissenting vote on the commission was Jim Kellogg, who has a long-standing reluctance to add new species to the list, Shea said.
The hitch is one of only four native species left in Clear Lake, said Peter Moyle, a fish biologist at UC Davis. There once were at least a dozen. The species has survived in part because it spawns in the spring, when there is still water for the fish to get upstream to spawn. Many of the species that have gone extinct were summer spawners and were killed off as human diversion of water dried up their spawning grounds.
The fish is fairly humble, just 8 to 10 inches long at full size and perhaps half a pound, but Moyle said it was once an important part of the culture around the lake. It was commonly dried and stored as a staple of the Pomo diet.
“It is the local equivalent of the salmon,” Moyle said. “It's something people can be proud of.”
It's not clear how many fish are left in the lake, but researchers say it is likely in the 5,000 to 10,000 range. As recently as the 1970s and '80s, there were easily hundreds of thousands in the lake and they would travel far upstream in every direction to breed.
The fish have been hurt by all of the things that have challenged the lake itself, including pollution and overfishing, but there have been three specific challenges, Moyle said, starting with the introduction of non-native species. Largemouth bass have a taste for the hitch, while smaller fish such as the Mississippi silverside and threadfin shad have an appetite for the same plankton that the hitch like to eat.
Secondly, the fish spawning grounds have been damaged by water diversion, gravel mining, paving, and small dams and other obstructions that block access.
And the reduction of protective vegetation along the banks of the lake has made juvenile fish more vulnerable to predators, leading to a decline of the adult population.
The request to list the hitch as endangered was made by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and supported by most of the Pomo bands in Lake County.
Protecting the hitch “is something that has been a priority of all the tribes' environmental efforts for the last seven or eight years,” Ryan said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)