March 23, 2023 – Prompted by urgent calls for action from Tribal leaders and community members, a coalition of Tribal, local, state and federal entities is taking immediate steps to support the long-term survival of the Clear Lake hitch.
A large minnow found only in northern California’s Clear Lake and its tributaries, the hitch, known as Chi to local Tribal members, migrates into the tributaries to spawn each spring before returning to the lake. Historically numbering in the millions, Clear Lake hitch now are facing a tough fight to avoid extinction.
Today, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced a list of commitments designed to protect spawning and rearing areas, provide appropriate stream flows, remove barriers to migration and reduce predation. CDFW expects these actions to provide a positive impact on the Clear Lake hitch population this spawning season and over the next few years.
Clear Lake hitch require adequate stream flows during spring for spawning. In some years, flows can become intermittent or can disappear, resulting in fish strandings and even fish kills. Immediate actions are needed to ensure flows are sufficient for successful spawning conditions; Tribal, local, federal and state leaders, as well as private landowners, are actively collaborating on interim efforts to ensure successful conditions through the end of the spawning period in June. These same entities are also collaborating on long-term planning, restoration, monitoring and management actions.
Recent reports indicate hitch are migrating up tributaries from Clear Lake into Cole, Kelsey, Manning and Adobe creeks. A recently installed fish ladder, designed by CDFW habitat specialists specifically for hitch, has allowed them to migrate up and over a barrier in Manning Creek that has prevented fish passage for several decades. CDFW has made agreements with Tribal governments for rescue of fish that may become stranded during spawning while also engaging with the local agricultural community to identify areas of fish stranding throughout the watershed. On March 16, CDFW fishery biologists, local agricultural community members and Tribal members rescued 450 adult Clear Lake hitch from a drainage canal along Cole Creek. CDFW has also taken steps to hold fish at hatchery facilities should rescued fish need a safe haven for a short time.
In coordination with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), CDFW is evaluating permitting options for local agricultural stakeholders to provide pumped groundwater into areas of creeks that may become dry during spawning season providing immediate relief during low water conditions. The broad coalition of partners is also gauging streams at multiple locations and reporting data to identify areas of poor spawning habitat conditions and to develop models for future use in predicting stream flow conditions.
Simultaneously, several key longer-term projects are advancing. CDFW recently approved a California Environmental Quality Act Statutory Exemption for the Wright Wetland Preserve Restoration Project in cooperation with Lake County and the Lake County Land Trust to restore 32 acres of Clear Lake hitch wetland habitat and connect it to 120 acres of existing wetland habitat. The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians is being supported by a CDFW grant to prepare environmental review and design for removal of the fish passage barrier along Kelsey Creek at the Main Street bridge and a coalition of partners is working to identify existing barriers on all the spawning tributaries.
Today, CDFW is also committing $2 million to implement barrier removal projects over the next three years. Working with Tribes and the Lake County Land Stewards, CDFW will accept funding proposals submitted in the next 90 days to remove barriers to hitch migration.
CDFW has also committed to ongoing coordination with a coalition of Clear Lake Tribes; state, local and federal resource agencies; landowners and others to help facilitate projects to protect and increase streamflow during Clear Lake hitch migration and spawning.
The coalition includes Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of California, Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians California, Elem Indian Colony, Lake County Farm Bureau, Lake County agricultural community, Lake County Land Trust, Lake County, California Fish and Game Commission, State and Regional Water Boards, California Department of Water Resources, Blue Ribbon Committee on the Rehabilitation of Clear Lake, the California Natural Resources Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
CDFW thanks all the partners in this coalition for the increased commitment and momentum to save Clear Lake hitch.