Delta Smelt — Friend or Foe?

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Anglers have spent years fishing the Delta without ever seeing the tiny Delta smelt even when they were plentiful. Yet now, reservoirs are being emptied to preserve water quality in the Delta so the endangered fish can escape extinction.

"Now, this water is flushed into the San Francisco Bay in order to protect a three inch fish called the Delta smelt," Assembly member Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, told FOX40.

Central Valley lawmakers like Grove are watching an historic drought devastate growers in the area. Food lines are growing as farm workers lose their jobs. It's no wonder there is growing pressure to change water policy and even remove the smelt from the endangered species list.

"Are these fish really that valuable? should we always put fish over humans?" Grove said. "What civilized society destroys its own food source for a three inch fish?"

Those opposing proposals like Gov. Jerry Brown's twin tunnels water transfer project say the drastic decline of smelt populations is a red flag for wildlife and other fish in the Delta.

"Along with the smelt, we have long fin and split tail and red fin and American Shad, and sturgeon and striped bass that are going instinct, too," Bill Jennings, of the California Sportfishing Alliance, said.

Many say water shipped south from the Delta to farms and cities means less water to flush salts and pollution from the ecosystem.

"I've fished the Delta over 30 years, and I've watched it die a slow death," West Delta Striped Bass Association President Roger Mammon said.

The smelt's future may depend on research and preservation efforts being done at the UC Davis Fish Conservation Lab.

A population of fish is being raised under controlled conditions. Creating a successful breeding program could be crucial if the fish disappears from the Delta, but reintroducing a species into the wild is difficult, no matter how diverse a breeding program, and it does no good to repopulate a habitat that is still compromised.

"The Delta smelt is in decline because the Delta is in decline," UC Davis Professor Peter Moyle said.

Some like to break down the dilemma in basic terms.

"When we start choosing fish over people, that's a problem," Assembly member Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, said.

Others say Delta farmers, homeowners and wildlife all have a stake in the same water quality that keeps the smelt thriving.