California adds longfin smelt to protected list

In a move that could usher in even tighter restrictions on water exports to Southern California, state wildlife regulators have decided to protect another fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The California Fish and Game Commission voted 3 to 0 to adopt protection for longfin smelt. The tiny fish makes its home in the delta, which serves as headwaters for the state and federal canals that send water to Southern California.

Those aqueducts, which deliver water to 25 million people and 2 million acres of farmland, have seen exports decline more than 40% in recent weeks because of court-ordered restrictions intended to save another diminutive fish, the delta smelt.

The addition of the longfin smelt to the protected list could affect water exports even more because its life cycle and breeding season are different from delta smelt, prompting restrictions that might begin earlier each year and end later.

Like its aquatic cousin, the longfin smelt has seen its population plummet in recent years. In 2007, it hit a record low along with several other types of delta fish, in what is considered a broad decline in the environmental health of the state's biggest estuary.

Scientists blame the delta's fish decline on increased water exports, declining water quality and invasive predators.

The commission's action, which was the result of a petition from several environmental groups, names the longfin smelt a candidate species, the first step to having it declared either threatened or endangered. Environmentalists have undertaken a parallel effort to prod the federal government to put the fish on the U.S. endangered species list.