(CN) — The San Francisco Bay-Delta population of the little longfin smelt may finally get federal protection as an endangered species after almost 30 years of petitioning and legal wrangling between environmentalists and the U.S. government.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it is proposing to list the species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act because scientific analysis shows it is in danger of extinction throughout its range. A final decision will come after the agency has considered public comment on the proposal.
“The longfin smelt may be small and unassuming, but they are an important part of the Bay-Delta estuary," Paul Souza, regional director for the Pacific Southwest with Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. "The loss of this species would have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.”
Conservation groups have tried to get the species federal protection since 1994. The Center for Biological Diversity and San Francisco Baykeeper sued in 2009, after Fish and Wildlife found the longfin smelt is not a "distinct population" entitled to protected status because it migrates up the coast to breed with other longfin. Three years later, the federal agency revised its conclusion but only put the species on a waiting list.
Another lawsuit followed in 2019, after The Trump administration failed to give protection to the longfin smelt and several other highly vulnerable species.
"This is a hugely important species whose decline highlights the potential loss of the bay’s native fish and fisheries,” Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the center, said in a statement. “Wildlife officials have dawdled and refused to protect longfin smelt for a quarter century. Meanwhile, more and more water diversions suck the life out of Central Valley rivers and the delta to benefit corporate agribusiness and development.”
The longfin smelt, which is already listed as a threatened species under California’s Endangered Species Act, is 3.5 to 4.3 inches long with a translucent silver appearance on its sides and gut, while its back has an olive to iridescent pinkish hue, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service's statement. It lives about two to three years in bays and estuaries along the coast from Northern California to Alaska. The Bay-Delta longfin smelt occupies only the San Francisco Bay estuary and some areas of the Pacific Ocean.
Protection under federal law will mean that destruction of the fish's habitat will also count as prohibited harm to the species, which isn't the case under state protection, Fish and Wildlife said.
The species' decline is one of numerous indicators of environmental imbalance in the San Francisco Bay estuary, the agency said, echoing observations repeatedly made by environmentalists.
“The longfin smelt’s catastrophic decline is yet another sign that water diversions from the rivers that feed the bay are unsustainable," Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist for San Francisco Baykeeper, said in a statement. "Now federal and state governments must act quickly to implement new safeguards for this unique species, as well as for the rest of San Francisco Bay’s native fish and wildlife.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.