To naturalists, the small fish called the Santa Ana sucker is a living relic of the days when real rivers ran through the Los Angeles Basin.
But today, long stretches of those rivers are encased in concrete, and the surrounding willows have been crowded out by condominiums and freeways. The sucker has been pushed inland to scattered outposts, its population dramatically reduced.
Now its survival may depend on a legal battle waged by fish advocates who hope to win the sucker protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking a new look at whether to grant that protection, which environmentalists have sought since 1994. No decision has been reached, but the fish's defenders hope their lawsuit will force the hand of federal officials soon.
"Unfortunately, the only way to get their attention is to sue," said Camm C. Swift, a fish biologist and outgoing president of the regional chapter of the American Fisheries Society, a group of scientists that helped bring suit last year on behalf of the beleaguered sucker.
What riles environmentalists the most is that federal experts acknowledged in 1997 that the fish's dwindling numbers should earn it federal protection--but that more than 100 other species of West Coast wildlife had a higher priority for listing. The service has a major backlog of plants and animals that are candidates for endangered species consideration. But with limited staff, the agency is unable to do the research needed to determine whether they warrant protection.
"They said we're once again shuffling this to the bottom of their deck. They're saying there are other species that are facing larger threats or more imminent threats," said Claudia Polsky, an attorney at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an environmental law firm. The fund is defending the sucker on behalf of the Fisheries Society's California-Nevada chapter and California Trout, a fish conservation group.
She compared the sucker's treatment to a hospital's leaving a patient bleeding in a waiting room. "The issue," she said, "is that the agency has conducted its triage improperly."
But federal officials concluded last year that the fish was less endangered than some other plants and animals, especially since a number of the fish live on federal land in the Angeles National Forest.
"Urban development is not as serious a threat to these populations, so the service has concluded that the species will not face extinction if recovery is temporarily postponed while listings of higher-priority species occur," service officials said then.
The Santa Ana sucker is an unlikely icon for wildlife activists. It lacks the notoriety of the northwest salmon, the glamour of rare wolves and jaguars. Its name is more likely to inspire jokes than public sympathy.
The freshwater fish was considered common as recently as the 1970s, federal records show. But today it is found only in four main spots in Southern California, driven inland by concrete river channels, dams and other development.
"The habitat has been totally wiped out for most sections of the streams," said John Nuss, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "Where the habitat is destroyed, the fish isn't there."
Today, the sucker's stronghold is the headwaters of the San Gabriel River in and near the Angeles National Forest. It still lives in some sections of its namesake, the Santa Ana River, from Riverside downstream to the Yorba Linda area of Orange County. More of the splotched, silvery fish can be found along lower Big Tujunga Creek in the Tujunga area, as well as farther north in the Santa Clara River.
The case is expected to be heard by a federal district court judge in San Francisco late this year or in early 1999.
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Santa Ana Sucker (Catostomus santannae)
* Description: Small to medium in size, with large, thick lips and small mouth used to vacuum algae and invertebrates from riverbeds and streams.
* Lifespan: Two to three years.
* Preferred habitat: Clear, cool rocky pools and creeks; small to medium rivers.
* Historic range: Once common in Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana River drainages and in small, shallow freshwater streams.
* Current range: Headwaters of San Gabriel River system, Big Tujunga Creek in the Los Angeles River Basin, portions of the Santa Ana River, and parts of the Santa Clara River system in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
* Decline caused by: Water diversions, dams, extreme alterations of stream channels, erosion, debris, torrents, pollution, heavy recreational use of waterways. Also, nonnative species that prey on suckers and compete for habitat.
Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service