Previously denied endangerment protection put native fish teeters on the brink after the loss of lake water has severely threatened the species.
—In a legal victory for the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed on April 14 to consider Endangered Species Act protections for the Clear Lake hitch once again. This large minnow is found only in Northern California’s Clear Lake.
In 2020 the agency denied the hitch protection despite severe declines in spawning fish and a near-complete loss of tributary spawning habitat due to drought and water withdrawal.
“The Clear Lake hitch is an endemic freshwater minnow, so their native range is the Clear Lake watershed,” said Meg Townsend, the Freshwater Species Staff Attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Historically, they live throughout the lake, and while it was once pretty highly abundant, its population has basically declined to less than one percent as its namesake watershed has been degraded over time. These fish should never have been denied protection in the first place.”
Clear Lake hitch are found only in the lake bearing their name. The hitch was once so plentiful that it was easy to spot millions teeming up the lake’s feeder streams during their spectacular spring spawning runs. The hitch has been a staple food and cultural mainstay of the original Pomo inhabitants of the region for eons. Clear Lake hitch are also an important food source for numerous birds, fish, and other wildlife. In recent years, however, only a few thousand fish have spawned.
There is a second population of hitch in Thurston Lake; however, Thurston Lake is roughly 1000 feet in elevation above Clear Lake; therefore, they are not hydrologically connected. In addition, it is unknown if this population of hitch is healthy because they were transferred there by a Thurston Lake landowner. The Thurston Lake hitch appears to be very pale in color because the lake’s water is volcanic runoff that contains a particular mineral content that causes the fish to be pale.
According to Townsend, the hitch has lost about 92 percent of its stream spawning habitat and over 85 percent of its wetland rearing habitat, which is where the young fish go to mature and escape predators that live in the lake.
“Part of the problem is a lot of the wetlands where the young fish go to rear have been lost either due to low lake levels, the water is no longer reach a lot of the former wetlands or just have been paved over and developed,” said Townsend. “So, most of the available streams to the hitch have no water flowing through them. The [hitch have] cultural significance to the Pomo people of the region. So, the indigenous people who live in the area refer to the hitch as chi, which is actually part of the scientific name. The native people in the area have often, throughout history, relied on the hitch as their main food source, and so it has provided a vital source of vitamins and nutrients to the native people. Over time as the area has been changed, and more and more water is being used for things like vineyards or legal and illegal cannibals growing as well as other agricultural uses.”
Because of the many threats facing these fish, the Center submitted petitions in 2012 to protect the Clear Lake hitch under both the federal and state endangered species acts. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 status review determined that suitable hitch habitat has degraded significantly, with an 85 percent loss of wetland habitat important for rearing, a 92 percent loss of stream spawning habitat, and degraded water quality in Clear Lake and throughout most of its tributaries.
“The Center for Biological Diversity filed a listing petition for the Clear Lake hitch in both the State of California under the Endangered Species Act and then under the Federal Endangered Species Act,” said Townsend. “In 2012, the Center filed this petition. A couple of years later, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife looked at the data and decided that the hitch was a threatened species and listed it under the State Endangered Species Act. Still then, for a number of years, the federal government didn’t take any action on the fish. There was no report, nothing was done, and then starting in 2019, some more activity was happening, and they started looking at the species.”
In December 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the hitch was not warranted for listing as an endangered species. The agency determined that because the hitch can live up to six years, and in that time, can lay an abundance of eggs, and because it can spawn in the lake and not just the streams, the species does not need to be listed.
But despite clear scientific evidence that the hitch is in danger of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose sole mission is to protect wildlife, denied protection to the fish. Today’s agreement is a result of a lawsuit by the Center.
“The entire Clear Lake ecosystem will benefit if we can restore stream habitat and recover these unique fish,” said Townsend. “Federal Endangered Species Act protection is crucial to ensuring minimum flows for hitch spawning streams, fixing fish passage barriers, reducing pollution, and restoring wetlands.”
Clear Lake hitch migrate out of the lake each spring when adult fish swim up tributary streams to spawn. Their numbers have declined because of water diversions, climate change and drought, degradation of spawning habitat, migration barriers, pollution, and competition and predation from invasive fish species. Both the lake and its tributaries have been dramatically altered by urban development and agriculture. Most of the lake’s stream and wetlands habitat has been destroyed or degraded, and barriers that impede hitch 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. Since then, spawning numbers have increased somewhat but are still far lower than historical levels. For example, since 2013, the average number of spawning fish in the two most important tributaries, Kelsey Creek and Adobe Creek, has been under 1,700 fish annually.
Clear Lake hitch have adapted to take advantage of a very brief window of suitable stream conditions for their annual spawning run. However, water diversions cause streams to rapidly dry up earlier in the year. On May 10, 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Lake County because of drought conditions. In addition, rapid climate change due to global warming will likely cause further spawning failures.