Delta smelt

Delta smelt
Delta Smelt
Delta smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Osmeriformes
Family: Osmeridae
Genus: Hypomesus
Species: H. transpacificus
Binomial name
Hypomesus transpacificus
McAllister, 1963

Delta smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, is an endangered[1] slender-bodied smelt, about 5 to 7 cm (2.0 to 2.8 in) long, of the Osmeridae family. Endemic to the upper Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary of California, it mainly inhabits the freshwater-saltwater mixing zone of the estuary, except during its spawning season, which primarily takes place during the early spring months from March until May.

Because of its one-year life cycle and relatively low fecundity, it is very susceptible to changes in the environmental conditions of its native habitat. A large number of these changes have led to a fluctuating population decline, as measured since 1959. Efforts to protect the endangered fish from further decline have focused on limiting or modifying the large-scale pumping activities of state and federal water projects at the southern end of the estuary.


Taxonomy and evolution

H. olidus

H. nipponensis and H. chishimaensis

H. japonicus

H. pretiosus

H. transpacificus

Phylogeny of the genus Hypomesus.[2]

The delta smelt is one of five currently recognized species within the Hypomesus genus, which is part of the larger Osmeridae family of smelts. The genus has been subject to many revisions since it was first classified by Gill in 1863.[3] The first major revision occurred in 1963, when the Osmeridae family was reexamined by Canadian ichthyologist McAllister. Expanding on Japanese researcher Hamada's determination that H. olidus was not a monolithic widespread species, but rather one of three distinct species of Hypomesus, McAllister assigned them new names, and further delineated what he believed were four subspecies. This was the first description of H. transpacificus; erroneously named for its occurrence on both sides of the Pacific, and also "to the friendship of Japanese and Canadian ichthyologists." He separated these geographically isolated populations into separate subspecies: H. t. transpacificus and H. t. nipponensis.[3]

Modern analysis of the genus would elevate all of McAllister's subspecies to full species status, based on fin ray counts and the number of chromatophores between their mandibles, a change which genetic analysis has supported.[2][4] In fact, genetic analysis would conclude that despite their morphological similarities, H. nipponensis and H. transpacificus are actually members of different phylogenetic clades.[5]

The abbreviated distribution of Hypomesus species along both the east and west sides of the Pacific ocean suggests that their common ancestor had a range that would have crossed the Pacific. Researchers have hypothesized that climatic changes may have reduced the range of the ancestral species during cooling periods, which would have created a reproductive barrier, allowing speciation to occur.[2] Although the low number of species in the genus and high levels of homoplasy have frustrated attempts to determine whether the northern pacific H. olidus or H. nipponensis are the basal species of Hypomesus,[2] it is known that the most recent speciation event in Hypomesus was between the two native east Pacific species, H. pretiosus and H. transpacificus. This is plausibly due to a geographic isolation of a widespread eastern Pacific ancestor, of which some members were isolated in a freshwater basin in western California, possibly in the lakes that would have been located in the southern San Joaquin Valley during the Pleistocene epoch.[2]


The delta smelt is endemic to the Sacramento Delta, California, where it is distributed from the Suisun Bay upstream through the Delta in Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo counties. The delta smelt is a pelagic (lives in the open water column away from the bottom) and euryhaline species (tolerant of a wide salinity range). It has been collected from estuarine waters with salinities up to 14 parts per thousand.

Life cycle

The delta smelt is semelparous, living one year and dying after its first spawning. Delta smelt spawning occurs in spring in river channels and tidally influenced backwater sloughs upstream of the mixing zone where saltwater meets freshwater. The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers then transport the delta smelt larvae downstream to the mixing zone, normally located in the Suisun Bay. Young delta smelt then feed and grow in the mixing zone before starting their upstream spawning migration in late fall or early winter.

The delta smelt is preyed upon by larger fish, especially striped bass and largemouth bass which are invasive species in the Sacramento Delta.[6]

Endangered status

The delta smelt was once a common fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary. The population is much smaller than it was historically, and the species was listed in 1993 as threatened under both the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) and Federal Endangered Species Act (FESA).[7] Critical habitat was listed for delta smelt on December 19, 1994.[8] In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission moved to uplist delta smelt to endangered under the CESA.

Court protection

On August 31, 2007, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California protected the delta smelt by severely curtailing human use water deliveries from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta from December to June.[9] These are the pumps at the Banks Pumping Plant that send water through the California Aqueduct to Central and Southern California for agricultural and residential use.

Although there have been allegations that this protection has hurt California's agricultural sector, with the devastation of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the Central Valley,[10] a 2009 United States Department of Agriculture study estimated that job losses due to smelt protection were closer to 5,000.[11] An additional 16,000 job losses in the Central Valley were attributed to the drought California had been experiencing in recent years.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Gimenez, Dixon. Hypomesus transpacificus; 1996. 10722. Listed as Endangered (EN B1+2 cd v2.3)
  2. ^ a b c d e Ilves KL, Taylor EB. Evolutionary and biogeographical patterns within the smelt genus Hypomesus in the North Pacific Ocean. Journal of Biogeography. 2008;35:48–64. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2007.01782.x.
  3. ^ a b McAllister DE. A revision of the smelt family, Osmeridae. National Museum of Canada Bulletin. 1963;191:29-31.
  4. ^ Sweetnam DA. Field identification of delta smelt and wakasagi. Interagency Ecological Program for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary Newsletter. 1995;(Spring):1-3.
  5. ^ Ilves KL, Taylor EB. Molecular resolution of the systematics of a problematic group of fishes (Teleostei: Osmeridae) and evidence for morphological homoplasy. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2009;50:163–178. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2008.10.021. PMID 19015040.
  6. ^ Raymond Bark, Brent Bridges, Dr. Mark D. Bowen, (2008). "2008 Tracy Research Study: Plan Predator Impacts on Salvage Rates of Juvenile Chinook salmon and Delta Smelt". Retrieved 2009-06-26. [dead link]
  7. ^ Federal Register 58:12863; March 5, 1993
  8. ^ Federal Register 59:65256
  9. ^ New York Times, California Judge Helps Declining Fish
  10. ^ ABC KFSN-TV "Water Shortage in the Central Valley"
  11. ^ a b Howitt, R., Josue Medellin-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan. "Measuring the Employment Impact of Water Reductions" Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis, September 2009

External links


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