Monday, March 30, 2015
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Tiny smelt a big player in state water wars

Delta Smelt

Delta smelt are dissected and preserved for further research by a team at UC Davic on November 12. The research facility often called the "smelt hotel" studies turbidity, salinity, temperature and other factors that affect the small fish, which has become a central figure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water use controversies. (Conner Jay/Daily Republic)

By
From page A1 | December 24, 2012 |

DAVIS — Some wits have dubbed it the “smelt hotel” and the Delta smelt that live in tanks there might play a role in easing the state’s water wars.

Turbidity. Salinity. Temperature. These are just some of the factors that can mean life or death for a tiny fish that has become a major force in Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water controversies simply by dying off and becoming rare.

Nann Fangue and other researchers gather information inside a small building with a concrete floor about two miles from the main UC Davis campus. Tanks and plastic pipes take up much of the space. The fish smell is strong and the sound of circulating water is dominant.

Fangue’s smelt guests are extremely delicate, to the point that netting them to move them around must be done in a way that doesn’t expose them to air.

“They’re one of the most sensitive if not the most sensitive species you can work on in the lab,” Fangue said. “They are definitely not cooperative like salmon and trout.”

The 3-inch-long Delta smelt can be found in Solano County bays and sloughs, as well as other parts of the Delta. Now Solano County’s fish is rocking California’s water world.

Symbolic of Delta problems

Other rare fish with Endangered Species Act protections live in the Delta. Among them are the Sacramento splittail, the longfin smelt, the Central Valley steelhead trout and the green sturgeon.

But the Delta smelt has become symbolic of the Delta’s problems. The native fish has seen its population plummet, leading to well-publicized court decisions to restrict water exports to farms and prompting efforts to restore vast amounts of tidal wetlands in eastern Solano County.

“For better or for worse, the Delta smelt is one of the drivers of this,” said Peter Moyle, a fish biology professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis and associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Moyle has studied California freshwater fish for more than 40 years. The 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Act ruling that proclaimed the Delta smelt as threatened refers extensively to Moyle’s studies.

The Delta smelt doesn’t have the best reputation in the Central Valley in such places as Tulare County. Some there blame court-ordered water restrictions related to protecting the fish for the fallowing of tens of thousands of acres of farmland and the loss of jobs.

Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican representing the Fresno-Tulare areas, in a 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, protested what he called a “regulatory mandated drought.” He called the Delta smelt “a 3-inch bait fish.”

There’s another way to look at the Delta smelt.

“It’s a species we should be proud of, because it only occurs in the Delta,” Moyle said.

People can argue that the smelt is unimportant and wouldn’t be missed if it disappeared, Moyle said. But, because it is so sensitive, it is a good indicator of whether the habitat is good for native fishes and invertebrates, he said.

In that sense, the Delta smelt could be a kind of early warning system, with its possible demise a harbinger of still worse Delta environmental damage to come.

“It is a species that is right in the middle of things,” Moyle said.

Scientists have tried to discover reasons for the smelt’s decline, be it fish getting killed in the water export pumps, smelt habitat getting saltier because of water exports, the presence of invasive species and pollution, or some combination of factors.

“The amazing thing to me is that it’s still out there,” Moyle said. “It still seems to be finding a way to survive. I think we’ve been lucky so far, it’s maintained itself.”

Smelt rescue efforts

One rescue idea would make the smelt Solano County’s fish in a big way. Tens of thousands of acres in the rural, eastern county could be restored as tidal wetlands to create a hoped-for haven for Delta smelt and other rare creatures.

Knowing more about the smelt could make it easier to design restored wetlands best-suited to the fish. The work at UC Davis could help provide answers.

UC Davis breeds Delta smelt in Contra Costa County for research. Researchers at the “smelt hotel” in Davis then must find ways to keep smelt thriving at different life stages. It isn’t easy.

For example, smelt are a schooling fish and like large, open spaces, so small tanks are unnatural to them, Fangue said. The larvae dislike being in clear water.

“There’s all of these really subtle things you have to get right before you can even think of starting to do the manipulations we like to do,” Fangue said.

Delta smelt are delicate in many ways. They spawn once a year and have a one-year life span.

“If they have a bad year, that’s a pretty dangerous thing for the species,” Fangue said. “It makes it harder for them to recover.”

Fangue didn’t grow up with aspirations to save the Delta smelt. She is a fish physiologist who took over a lab for a fish physiologist who studied Bay-Delta issues, with the smelt on the to-do list. Federal and state agencies are particularly interested in the smelt.

So Fangue and other researchers for about two years have put smelt in the tanks to see how well they do in different temperatures, turbidities and other factors at different stages of their lives.

What works in the “smelt hotel” could work in the real world as well. It could help save a fish that is at the heart of the state’s seemingly endless water wars.

“A lot of my work before was interesting, but it didn’t have a direct application,” Fangue said. “Here you really feel you’re not just doing science, but people are paying attention.”

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.

Delta smelt facts

  • Color: Nearly translucent with a steely-blue sheen to the sides.
  • Length: About 3 inches.
  • Smell: Similar to cucumbers.
  • Abundance: The state’s Midwater Trawl Survey index uses a ratio to measure abundance, rather than estimate actual smelt population numbers. The index for 2011 was 343, compared to 29 in 2010 and 1,673 in 1970.
Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling has been a reporter with the Daily Republic since 1987. He covers Solano County government, transportation, growth and the environment. He received his bachelors of art degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 2 comments

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • Rich GiddensDecember 24, 2012 - 9:14 am

    Your state values a nuisance pest fish more then it values agriculture. Move the non-indigenous pest fish to an area that wont be affected.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Alice RamirezFebruary 23, 2013 - 8:16 pm

    The San Joachim Valley's fertile farms, orchards and vineyards produce at least 1/3 of all food consumed in the US and perhaps the world. If politicians in the pockets of radical environmentalists doom agriculture in this productive region for the sake of a tiny trash fish-- a subspecies of a non-endangered species (smelt) -- then food will become more costly to acquire... a hardship especially for the poor in the US and elsewhere. Importing our food to replace Central Valley acres taken out of production, compromises our national security (an unfriendly government might decide, in future, not to make needed food available to us), endangers our health since environmental controls are not as stringent on foreign farms, and increases our carbon footprint due to the effects of transporting replacement food from far away places.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
.

Solano News

Easter activities, events abundant

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Christians begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday celebrations

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A1 | Gallery

2 drivers killed in same area, an hour apart

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A1

 
My guide to dining out

By Tony Wade | From Page: A2

Local governments post week’s meeting times

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A3

 
Top young spellers to compete for Solano title

By Glen Faison | From Page: A3

Police investigate shooting off North Texas Street

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A3 | Gallery

 
Vallejo police seek leads in weekend homicide

By Amy Maginnis-Honey | From Page: A3

Biz Buzz: Re/Max hires new Realtor

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10

 
Biz Buzz: PAL receives donation from glass company

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A10 | Gallery

 
Biz Buzz: Wiseman officer names Perez to key post

By Kevin W. Green | From Page: A10

.

US / World

Police ramp up rail-crossing citations after recent crashes

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Analysis finds unequal pay for women on California Capitol

By The Associated Press | From Page: A3

Songwriter injured in California crash; motorcyclist killed

By The Associated Press | From Page: A3

 
Taylor Swift wins artist of the year at iHeartRadio Awards

By The Associated Press | From Page: A4

Drownings along Rio Grande spike after enforcement surge

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
Grandma is a centerfold: Rest home bares all for calendar

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

Police: 2 bodies found in NYC building explosion rubble

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
Islamic State group beheads 8 Shiites in Syria’s Hama

By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

Waving fronds around the world, Christians mark Palm Sunday

By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

 
Air Canada plane makes hard landing short of Halifax runway

By The Associated Press | From Page: A7

Small tsunami generated in Pacific after earthquake

By The Associated Press | From Page: A9

 
.

Opinion

 
Venezuela, Argentina deluding themselves

By Megan Mcardle | From Page: A8

Personal accounts drive CARB hearings

By Betty Plowman | From Page: A8

 
Who speaks for our Founding Fathers?

By Mike Kirchubel | From Page: A8

.

Living

Community Calendar: March 30, 2015

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2

 
Today in History: March 30, 2015

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Horoscopes: March 30, 2015

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: B6

 
Parenting: If a father is abusive, a mother must act

By The Washington Post | From Page: B8

 
Horoscopes: March 31, 2015

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: B8

.

Entertainment

TVGrid March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A10

 
TVGrid March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A11

Michelle Obama declares ‘Black Girls Rock!’

By The Associated Press | From Page: A11

 
.

Sports

Spartans Final Four-bound after 76-70 OT win over Louisville

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Duke back in Final Four after 66-52 win over Gonzaga

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Hamlin wins for 25th time, and fifth time at Martinsville

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Jimmy Walker wins hometown Texas Open

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Oakland OF Josh Reddick won’t be ready for start of season

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

California Chrome heads to Britain, to race at Royal Ascot

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Vettel wins Malaysian GP to end Mercedes streak

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Joe Gibbs on son: most courageous person I’ve been around

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Chodounsky defends slalom title at US Alpine Championships

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

South Carolina earns 1st Final Four berth, beats FSU 80-74

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Turner says Saturday regional finals highest-rated in decade

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Apology for wrong anthem for El Salvador before game in US

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Montoya holds off Power to give Penske 1-2 sweep at St. Pete

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Stanford’s Randle chases school scoring record, title at NIT

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Hamlin wins for 25th time, and fifth time at Martinsville

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Cain goes 4 innings in Giants win over LA

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Graveman pitches into 7th inning as A’s beat Brewers 7-0

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

.

Business

.

Obituaries

Robert Roberts

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
Janice Jewel Thompson

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

.

Comics

Peanuts March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Zits March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Blondie March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Pickles March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Get Fuzzy March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Sally Forth March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

For Better or Worse March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Baldo March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Garfield March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Dilbert March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Baby Blues March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Frank and Ernest March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

B.C. March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Wizard of Id March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Beetle Bailey March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Rose is Rose March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Sudoku March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
Bridge March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

Word Sleuth March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
Crossword March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

Cryptoquote March 30

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
B.C. March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Blondie March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Peanuts March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Baldo March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Rose is Rose March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Beetle Bailey March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
For Better or Worse March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Dilbert March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Garfield March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Pickles March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Zits March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Sally Forth March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Get Fuzzy March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Wizard of Id March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Baby Blues March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

Frank and Ernest March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

 
Word Sleuth March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8

Bridge March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8

 
Sudoku March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8

Cryptoquote March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8

 
Crossword March 31

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B8