One Delta smelt. One.

That’s what researchers found during the state’s most recent smelt survey last week.

Not for a lack of effort, mind you. The state typically spends four days on this particular survey, sampling 40 smelt-friendly sites throughout the Delta. A 25-foot net is spread between two boats, which then trawl the waters and collect all sorts of fish, shrimp and jellyfish.

Four days. Forty sites. One Delta smelt.

In 2012, the same April survey captured 143 smelt. In 2013 there were 22. In 2014 there were 36.

Looking solely at this year, the January survey turned up 21 fish, followed by 72 in February, 6 in March, and now… one measly male smelt hanging out in the Sacramento Deep Water Channel.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife

Peter Moyle, a leading expert on California’s native fishes, told me in an email tonight that the April results are “shocking but not unexpected.”

Typically the number of smelt found by researchers declines as the season progresses, possibly as smelt die off after spawning, he said.

But it’s simply “sad” to see that no smelt were found in 39 of the 40 locations sampled, Moyle said.

True, the areas surveyed represent only a small fraction of the smelt’s total habitat, but Moyle says the surveys are effective at targeting where fish are most likely to be as they gather and spawn.

“The main hope now for the smelt is that some of these remaining fish spawned successfully and the young will survive for a year despite unfavorable conditions,” he wrote.

In March, when the same survey turned up six smelt, Moyle warned that extinction may be unavoidable.

Smelt are considered a bellwether of the health of the Delta as a whole, and they suffer during a drought. Less flow through the Delta means a saltier estuary; smelt need relatively fresh water for breeding purposes. When they don’t find that in the western Delta, they move farther east, into areas where they are more likely to fall prey to predatory fish or become exposed to pollution or pumps.

Struggling to balance environmental needs against “substantial human suffering,” state officials bypassed some of the water-quality requirements for smelt and other species last year and again this year. Skirting those rules would likely harm fish, they found, but not to an unreasonable extent.

Environmentalists disagree, and the latest survey numbers — or number, as in singular, one fish — means the debate won’t end anytime soon.

A Delta smelt at a captive breeding facility. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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