BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Dr. Peter Moyle on academic research, Delta smelt, and public policy: a personal history
Protection of the Bay-Delta ecosystem is at a pivotal point. The system has endured devastating drought cycles and often competing priorities that seek to supply water for both cities and farms as well as improve the aquatic ecosystem for fisheries, recreation and tourism. Achieving these co-equal goals requires science that expands our knowledge of ecosystem responses, produces data that directly supports decisions, and builds long-term, resilient solutions.
In November, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Delta Stewardship Council brought together more than a thousand scientists, engineers and resource managers for the 2016 Bay Delta Science Conference in Sacramento to exchange ideas, learn about problem-solving science, and explore creative solutions to myriad problems plaguing the San Francisco Bay and the Delta estuary.
Dr. Peter Moyle is a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and the associate director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. Dr. Moyle is also the second recipient of the Brown-Nichols Science Award in 2010 for significant research and active involvement in facilitating the use of science to manage the San Francisco estuary and watershed. In this speech from the plenary session, Dr. Peter Moyle talks about his 35 years of research on California’s native fishes.
Here’s what he had to say.
“For this talk, I was asked to address the question ‘How has your research program and the data it has produced over the last 35 years been used to develop solutions for conserving aquatic resources in Delta?” A great question to try to answer.”
“This talk was originally going to be full of arm-waving generalities about the value of academic research. However, I was convinced that I should tell stories instead by my students primarily to keep up your interest. It was suggested that my advanced age entitled me to be more personal in my approach, and fortunately for you, I can only ramble on for about 20 minutes.”
“My major contribution to the world of California fish and water has been to compile and summarize information on the biology, status, and trends of California’s freshwater fishes. To do this, I use a lot of data from agencies, academic colleagues, and other sources, as well as from occasional studies of my own and my students. My bias has always been towards native fishes because they are a unique collection of species with many fascinating stories to tell in their own right. These stories feature their evolution, ecology, and abilities to cope – or not to cope, as the case may be – with the rapid change inflicted on their habitats by us humans.”
“This bias has led to my being involved in their conservation, mostly by supplying information on their biology to agencies, NGOs, and others, and occasionally through more active involvement such as filing endangered species petitions or being an expert witness in trials and hearings. This graph showing the number of my publications versus status of California fishes suggests my success rate. Generally, the more I publish, the worse off the fish seem to be. Part of my problem with my addiction to native fishes is that they keep going downhill.”
“I have been working on California fish issues now since 1969 – that’s almost 46 years. I have always been interested in the policy implications of my research from the very beginning. This interest seems to stem in part from my upbringing in Minnesota where my father was a highly respected fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. Going out with him, I heard a lot about both the natural history of lakes and streams and also about the difficulties of managing their fisheries, especially when politicians were involved.”
“When I started teaching at Fresno State, one of the first field trips my fish class took was to the Kings River below Pine Flat Dam to sample fish. One of our seine hauls brought up many of these silvery shiny fish I did not recognize, each about 4 inches long. Fortunately, one of the undergraduates in the class was Dale Mitchell, who had grown up looking at local fish with his father, Earl Mitchell, a fish and game biologist. “Those are Chinook salmon” he said in surprise. This discovery led to my first paper on California fish – I call it my chinook salmon monograph.”
“This little paper was important for me because I had to figure out why Dale was so surprised. This in turn got me into the history of salmon in both the Kings and the San Joaquin Rivers. This in turn became my introduction to California water issues. I could argue that this introduction to salmon was ultimately what led to my getting involved in litigation to enforce section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code, as an expert witness, leading to restoration of flows in the San Joaquin.”
“I moved to UC Davis in 1972 and in my quest for tenure, I wrote this book which was published in 1976. I produced this book in good part because I needed a reference work myself to guide my research program on California fishes. It was not the smartest thing in the world to take on a big project like this as an untenured professor with small kids at home, but it turned out to be a risk worth taking. In other words, I got tenure. One example of how I used it to guide my own research program is the section on delta smelt. This section was only 3 pages long, including a picture with just one page devoted to life history. Most of the information was from my own on-going studies of the smelt.”
Here is my conclusion that I came to in that account:
“And watch them I did. I spent a lot of time doing that.”
“My informal evaluations of status in this book like that for the delta smelt formed the base line for my ongoing evaluations of fish statewide. These maps were generated fairly recently of my evaluations of fish status. In 1975, right before I published my book, most of the state is green which says the native fishes were doing pretty well. You look at that same map today, you notice that the green has shrunken considerably, suggesting the native fishes are not doing very well. This is definitely a shifting baseline because most people pretty much accept the way things are today.”
“Then in 1982, we published a paper on tule perch. This fish, the tule perch, is significant because it is the reason I began a study of the fishes of Suisun Marsh. A graduate student, Don Baltz, wanted to study life history variation in tule perch for his dissertation and we decided to try sampling the Marsh as a source of perch for his studies. We launched our first sampling expedition in January 1979 and were impressed not only with the abundance of tule perch but of all native fishes, as well as non-natives like striped bass. We sampled monthly for the rest of year and I realized this would be a great place to study native fish life histories, as well as to examine how fish communities are structured, especially in relation to Delta outflow.”
“Fortunately, Randy Brown of the Department of Water Resources and of the Brown-Nichols Science Award fame, heard me talk about the Marsh. He asked if I wanted to do basic fish monitoring in the Marsh to evaluate the effects of proposed tidal gates. I offered to do it for the price of one grad student and boat gas and he agreed. I think he was especially impressed that I wanted to involve students in the sampling program. Many of those students have gone on to work for DWR or other agencies so I suspect it would be regarded as a good investment.”
“My group has been sampling the Marsh for over 36 years. Our sampling program has always been a contrast with other surveys because if its location, in one of the most productive parts of the estuary, and because from the beginning I was interested in the entire community of fishes, not just game fish and endangered species.”
“One result was a stream of papers on basic fish biology in the Marsh, such as the first life history study of splittail which really told us a lot about why it’s a survivor in this system.”
“In 1986, we published the first study of the fish communities. After 5 years of monthly sampling, I really thought I understood how they worked. Turns out I didn’t really. As years went on, the more complicated the understanding became. I now think of them as part of dynamic, novel ecosystems. This is really a reflection of a dynamic ecosystem; there’s a lot of that still remaining in this system and we have to respect that variation as part of managing the system. This change in view point through time is perhaps a lesson for the study of the Delta fishes in general. But a key finding with my community-level studies is that most native and non-native species responded to environmental change in similar ways, although some can take advantage of it more than others.”
“Then in the mid 1980s, we noticed that delta smelt had just about disappeared from our samples. Bruce Herbold was the grad student in charge of the project at the time, so we decided to check to if this was just a Suisun phenomenon or something estuary-wide. We compiled all the data from the various surveys and found, sure enough, that the smelt crash was general.”
“So in August of 1989, I submitted a petition to list the species as threatened under the state Endangered Species Act. I decided to do this because I was the principal expert on the smelt at the time, and so I felt it was my responsibility to let people know that the fish was in serious trouble. But since I had some inkling the petition would be controversial, I only filed it with the state, figuring this was a California problem and should be dealt with by California people. I also knew that the California Endangered Species Act was a much weaker law than the federal act, so I thought there would be more flexibility in dealing with the water controversies that seemed likely to follow its listing. The petition was rejected, of course; that was always the first response. In the following year the American Fisheries Society slapped a new cover letter on the petition and submitted it to the USFWS and it became listed in 1993. I am not sure all this counts as influencing policy, however; it was more along the lines of stirring up an ant’s nest.”
“Once the smelt was listed, I was asked by the USFWS to head up a team to write the recovery plan. Remarkably, we were asked to develop a recovery plan for all declining native species of the Delta, given it was easy to see that other species were on the path towards listing. We completed the document in one year, which I think is a bit of a record, especially considering there were frequent public meetings involved. We finished in 1994 but it took a couple of years to issue the final product.”
“As far as I can tell the document was then put on a high shelf in a back office and rarely looked at because only Delta smelt was listed so only the Delta smelt had clout. Not that it helped the smelt much either. The latest numbers from the fall midwater trawl survey is that the index is zero.”
“One of the main interesting things to emerge from this listing was an information explosion on smelt. The rarer the fish has become, the more we have studied it.”
“While all this has been going on, I was also involved in various overview reports that generally provide suggestions for recovery of the Delta, similar to those we had in the Delta Native Fishes Recovery Plan. Even in 1992 we had a pretty good idea as to what was going on but no decisions to change water management were made. The reason given was that more research was needed because we don’t really know what’s going on.”
“Let me read you the concluding statement from the 1998 Strategic Plan for the Ecosystem Restoration Program:
“In retrospect, now that almost 20 years has past since that was written, the statement almost seems tongue in cheek because clearly that has not happened. I continue to help write reports that recommend how to improve the Delta ecosystem and frankly I don’t see much progress being made, as the delta smelt trends so eloquently attests.”
“My daughter Petrea, who has an enviable sharpness of mind, asked me recently that given all that happening or not happening in the Delta, where do you think you have made a difference. What are you most proud of? My first response was “Putah Creek.” There’s at least the flow regime I helped to design has brought native fish back to the creek and it’s a nice, novel ecosystem.”
“But I remain optimistic.”
“For example, there are many promising developments in Suisun Marsh that look like they will favor native species. There’s a lot going on here that I hope will be good for species like splittail and perhaps even smelt.”
“But I continue to think big-picture solutions may happen if in a somewhat reduced fashion. Here is a current vision for unified arc of habitat to favor native fishes. What you notice in this picture is that the arc in green is only about 1/3rd or so of the Delta. We’re suggesting basically that you’ll get the most bang for your buck if restoration dollars are invested in one continuous line of habitat: you start at the Yolo Bypass, you work your way down through the North Delta, you go past Twitchell Island and Sherman Island where the big restoration projects are underway and you wind up in Suisun Marsh – all of this is interconnected. This is a place where you have a chance for all these options to work. It includes a wide array of habitats, from floodplains to tidal marsh to open river.”
“There are a lot of opportunities for things to work here and I think the rest of the Delta just doesn’t have as much opportunities that this part of the Delta has. I don’t want to give up completely on the rest of the Delta, because what we learn from this arc can be applied to the rest of the Delta, but this is the kind of vision I am thinking about. Reducing my expectations of what we can do with the Delta, and suggesting let’s focus on the places where we know we can really make a difference.”
“Because preservation and restoration have not worked very well, I am placing my hope on the idea of reconciliation. A reconciled Delta ecosystem may actually work as a place where native fish can persist, if we really want them to.”
“Let me wrap this up by reminding you that I was asked to respond to the question “How has your research program and the data it has produced over the last 35 years been used to develop solutions for conserving aquatic resources in SF Bay Delta?” My response has to be, ‘Well, it’s hard to say. But the reality is that the Delta has continued to deteriorate as a habitat for native fishes, despite my research and despite many proposals for solutions.’”
“But if my research has had any impact, it is only because it is a small part of a much bigger research effort to understand the Delta and its fishes, which is demonstrated by this amazing conference.”
“We have the knowledge to create a reconciled ecosystem that is good for native fish, wildlife and people. We just have to apply that knowledge better. I think that’s the basic bottom line. So I hope this foggy sunrise will inspire you to think about the future, and continue to work hard to restore what parts of the Delta we can.”
“Thank you very much.”
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