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Synthesis of data and studies relating to Delta Smelt biology in the San Francisco Estuary, emphasizing water year 2017

November 1, 2021

In the San Francisco Estuary (SFE), the effects of freshwater flow on the aquatic ecosystem have been studied extensively over the years and remains a contentious management issue. It is especially contentious with regards to the Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), a species endemic to the SFE that has been listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act and endangered by the State of California. Early studies of Delta Smelt distribution within the SFE suggested that Delta Smelt habitat is determined largely by freshwater flow; however, the exact mechanisms and processes producing such benefits remained unclear. In the summer of 2017, the Flow Alteration Management, Analysis, and Synthesis Team (FLOAT-MAST) was established to analyze, synthesize, and summarize the data collected from the various flow-related monitoring and special studies occurring in 2017(see Table Intro 4). This report will focus on the 2017 summer-fall status of Delta Smelt and its habitat following a record wet year.

There has been a long-term decline in the abundance of Delta Smelt associated with a decline in other pelagic fishes. Investigators concluded that the decline has likely been caused by the interactive effects of several causes, including changes in both physical and biotic habitats, many of which are tied to amount and timing of freshwater flow. For this report, we formulated a number of basic predictions about the likely effects of high flows in 2017 on Delta Smelt and their habitat (Table 3). We use a qualitative weight of evidence approach to evaluate whether these predictions were supported by available data. Data sources included a variety of long-term monitoring surveys conducted by Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) agencies, as well as model outputs.

Delta Smelt population, health, and life history metrics rarely responded as predicted. Water temperature appears to have a stronger effect on Delta Smelt growth rate and some metrics of life history diversity than outflow or X2 position. Other life history diversity attributes varied but did not appear to be driven by outflow or temperature. Health status was difficult to interpret. Low prevalence of lesions and improved nutritional condition during the drought was contradicted by declining overall population levels. Because of the sparse catches of Delta Smelt in the post-POD years, we consider the data insufficient to reach firm conclusions about the predictions concerning range and distribution of Delta Smelt, especially in the fall. The prediction of high survival was not supported. The 2017 Delta Smelt year class began with poor recruitment in spring of 2017 and below average survival for spring to summer and summer to fall. Thus, low production and low survival led to low abundance of all life stages. During the fall to winter period survival improved, yet the resulting adults were low in number. Foraging success of the fish captured, as measured by stomach fullness, was high for juveniles and adults in 2017 relative to recent years associated with the higher densities of common zooplankton prey that occurred in 2017.

Publication Year 2021
Title Synthesis of data and studies relating to Delta Smelt biology in the San Francisco Estuary, emphasizing water year 2017
Authors Shawn Acuna, Randy Baxter, Aaron J. Bever, Larry R. Brown, Christina Burdi, Gonzalo Castillo, Louise Conrad, Steven Culberson, Lauren Damon, Jared Frantzich, Lenny Grimaldo, Bruce Hammock, April Hennessy, James A. Hobbs, Shruti Khanna, Peggy W. Lehman, Michael L. MacWilliams, Brian Mahardja, Andrew A. Schultz, Steven B. Slater, Ted Sommer, Swee Teh, Janet Thompson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Series Title Interagency Ecological Program Technical Report
Series Number 95
Index ID 70226476
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center