Saving Smelt

Saving Smelt

Delta Smelt

Ever since this tiny, 2-3-inch-long, silver fish was first listed as threatened in 1993, and then later as endangered in 2009, efforts to understand and protect Delta Smelt have been central driver of SF Estuary management efforts. Over the decades, as the species has become increasing scarce, the focus has changed from understanding how the smelt use Estuary habitats, and its lifecycle, as well as how to keep it away from the water project pumps and enhance its estuarine habitats (water quality standard known as “X2”) to fish V farms water wars politics and more recently final throws efforts to protect the gene pool in labs, culture fish, and then release smelt back into the wild. To read about Delta smelt in the context of other estuarine fishes with different life stories, see Estuary‘s special March 2022 Fish Tales issue.

Editor’s Picks

  • Lookout Slough Restoration will be the Delta’s Largest Yet
    Lookout Slough Restoration will be the Delta’s Largest Yet

    When the restoration of Lookout Slough is complete, Lookout Slough will be no more. Created to provide water for a century-old duck-hunting club, the human-made canal will be filled in as part of a $119 million, 3,400-acre tidal wetlands restoration, the largest ever in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Drought and climate change have elevated the […]

  • Hatchery Delta Smelt Released to Wild
    Hatchery Delta Smelt Released to Wild

    On a mild day between rainstorms in mid-December, wildlife biologists outfitted in rubber boots and orange lifejackets load drum after drum of precious cargo onto a small boat docked in Rio Vista, a town on the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There is little fanfare but the occasion is nonetheless momentous. The shiny […]

  • Brinkmanship for Frail Smelt
    Brinkmanship for Frail Smelt

    By Joe Eaton Delta smelt had a bad year in 2017. Although scientists are still analyzing the data, the message seems to be that strong freshwater flows alone are not sufficient to allow the population to increase. The resulting sense of urgency has led fish biologists to consider how cultured smelt, raised in hatcheries, could […]

  • Options for Orphan Species
    Options for Orphan Species

    Off a bustling Delta highway, next door to a branch of the California Aqueduct, sprawls a tidy collection of shipping containers, humming pumps, and cylindrical tanks. Paved in cracked asphalt and encircled by chain link fencing, it resembles any number of light industrial sites at the margins of many communities. In fact, this resolutely artificial site is devoted to preserving a disappearing piece of natural California: the Delta smelt. “Our fish are a refuge population,” says Tien-Chieh Hung. Director of the UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Laboratory, Hung oversees this one-acre facility on the outskirts of the tiny town of Byron.

  • No Scapefish in Drought Wars
    No Scapefish in Drought Wars

    According to the Biblical book of Leviticus, the ancient Israelites designated a goat to bear the weight of their sins. Nowadays, the scapegoat is not required to be a goat. When it comes to assessing blame for the worsening California drought, a scapefish will suffice. Some media outlets, notably the Wall Street Journal in a recent op-ed piece, point to the hapless Delta smelt as a culprit in the state’s water crisis, as well as a prime example of the iniquities of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Further Selections

Search this site

Related Posts

American Avocet on managed, former salt ponds in the South Bay. Photo: Roopak Bhatt, USGS

One-of-a-Kind Stories

Our magazine’s media motto for many years has been “Where there’s an estuary, there’s a crowd.” The SF Estuary is a place where people, wildlife, and commerce congregate, and where watersheds, rivers and the ocean meet and mix, creating a place of unusual diversity. In choosing to tell the Story...
dam spillway oroville

Supplying Water

Ever since the state and federal water projects were built in the 1930s and 1940s, California has captured snowmelt in foothill reservoirs, and moved the fresh water from dam releases and river outflows to parched parts of the state via aqueducts hundreds of miles long. A convoluted system of ancient...

Tackling Pollution

Though the Clean Water Act did an amazing job of reducing wastewater and stormwater pollution of the SF Estuary, some contaminants remain thorny problems.  Legacy pollutants like mercury washed into the watershed from upstream gold mining, PCBs from old industrial sites, and selenium from agricultural drainage in the San Joaquin...