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 San Francisco 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, to political debates about fish versus farms and the proverbial water wars. Over time, managers labored to keep the species away from the water project pumps and to enhance its estuarine habitats via water quality standard known as “X2”. More recently, efforts have revolved about last ditch attempts 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

    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 be used to supplement the wild population.

  • 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. 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…

  • 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

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