Our ongoing fight for a once-invisible fish…now made visible

Fish fascinate me.

Whether I meet them up close and underwater, or on the other side of a thick glass aquarium panel, they give off a chill, yet hyper-vigilant fishy vibe. A vibe that signifies they’re hanging out, being fishy with the other fishies, and my potential predatory self has been clocked, but not entirely trusted.

Despite my long-term love affair with the extravagantly hued wonders of fish species inhabiting Pacific shorelines and reefs, I do not turn my nose up at their plainer freshwater cousins. I can be equally captivated by a minnow.

Which is how I came to care about one minnow in particular, the Clear Lake Hitch (Lavinia exicauda chi). This very large minnow, as important to the Native Tribes living around Clear Lake (Lake County, California) as salmon is to Native Tribes living along the coasts of the Pacific Northwest, is in severe decline.

Last year, I wrote an article, The Fight for an Invisible Fish, for The Revelator, an imprint of the Center for Biological Diversity. (It has since been carried by KECT and Hatch Magazine, among other outlets.) I called the hitch “invisible” because I had never seen one in the wild, despite having worked for Lake County tribes for almost a decade.

The article came out after a lawsuit I had joined, failed to make an impact on the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Despite clear scientific evidence of severely depleted populations by Federal and State biologists, and no evidence of juvenile recruitment for five years in a row, the USFWS said there wasn’t enough data to justify listing the hitch as endangered. They said they need to study the situation some more. They said they would revisit their ruling in 2025.

(By which time the hitch will have gone functionally extinct.)

“Agencies view the hitch as just a fish. But for Tribes the hitch is sacred. We believe Creator placed this fish here to help us survive for thousands of years. The chi (Pomo word for hitch) not only fed the seven Tribes around the lake, but it fed Tribes who came in from surrounding counties — Sonoma, Napa, Sacramento — and sustained all these people since time immemorial. That’s gone now. Anyone younger than 30 doesn’t know anything about this.”

Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians tribal elder Ron Montez, Sr.

The Clear Lake Hitch are endangered for the usual reasons: we didn’t do what we needed to do, years and years ago, to maintain healthy populations.

Clear Lake Tribes have repeatedly raised the alarm – in 2014, when the hitch was listed as endangered by the State of California, and again in 2020, when the Center for Biological Diversity brought a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service for not granting the hitch federally endangered status, and again in the Summer of 2022, when the Tribes provided testimony at the Tribal Committee of the California Fish and Game Commission.

Only after additional testimony was provided by Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians Tribal Elder and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ron Montez, Sr. at another meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission in October 2022, when the Commissioners were moved to suggest holding a Hitch Summit, did things begin to change, radically.

At the Summit (held in December, the same week this article came out in the Los Angeles Times), the major government players: the California Fish and Wildlife Department, the California Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, the US Fish and Wildlife Services, Lake County staff and Lake County Pomo Tribal representatives, got together for an all-day meeting to hash things out and make a plan.

The good news? More attention, staff time, resources, funds, and on-the-ground actions to support the hitch are taking place than have ever before been devoted to the hitch. I wrote about it for the final issue of Estuary News.)

More good news? We had an exceptionally wet Spring, and the creeks have been running high.

The best news?

I saw the hitch (“chi”).

A video I made with Ron Montez, Sr. at Adobe Creek in March 2023, the first time I saw hitch in the wild.

Can I possibly put into words how joyful seeing these fish made me? And everyone else who has missed them for so long?

It was like seeing someone you’ve heard about, someone you know is beautiful & intriguing & courageous & exceptional & of inestimable value; someone longed for & desperately missed. (Yep, I cried.)

After carefully inching my way down the steeply angled concrete embankment of yet-another-fish-unfriendly-culvert, I crouched down next to the water and filmed those gorgeous minnows. Beside me, Ron began pounding his walking stick on the metal pipe and sang a traditional song to welcome the hitch back. (You can hear the song and Ron’s remembrances about the hitch in the video above, where you can also witness the hitch spawning.)

More good news: the California Fish and Wildlife Department announced a $2M initiative to remove barriers to hitch passage along the tributaries leading into Clear Lake, along with a number of collaborative research projects with local Tribes. The State Water Resources Control Board set up a Clear Lake Hitch website, and, noting that “most surface water users are out of compliance” with one or more regulations, are now requiring all surface water diverters (viz., agriculturalist) to “report their water use to the Board each year. Those who are authorized to divert more than 10 acre-feet per year must comply with the Board’s water measurement regulations, which require the installation of measuring devices and set standards for monitoring and reporting diversions of water (see Title 23 of the California Code of Regulations, sections 931 through 938).

And while lifting most of the drought restrictions for the coming year, California Governor Newsom’s Executive Order in late March 2023 singled out the Klamath River salmon and the Clear Lake Hitch as species that merited continued vigilance.

“WHEREAS continued action by the State is needed to address ongoing consequences of the drought emergency, including groundwater supply
shortages, domestic well failures, and drought-related harm to native fishes in the Klamath River and Clear Lake watersheds….”

Executive order 5-2-23

Much of the back story is detailed in my article in the Estuary Times, which began:

Since the 1950s, four native fish extinctions have taken place in Lake County’s Clear Lake: the thicktail chub, Clear Lake splittail, Pacific lamprey, and hardhead. A fifth endemic species, the Clear Lake hitch, is teetering on the brink.

“I just attended a talk by a renowned water expert,” says a conservation lawyer-friend of mine, “he gave a talk on how dire our water situation is (in the USA). He said to get ready to lose a lot more species.”

This is not how we want the story to end.

For now, there is a tremendous amount of energy and attention focused on the hitch. We pray that it will be sustained. But the hitch – and so many other beings imperiled by climate change – need more than thoughts and prayers. More than a few months of sustained actions. It will take years: possibly an entire generation, for the hitch to return to the populations needed to sustain Lake County Tribes.

Knowing my lawyer-friend, she will never give up.

Neither will we.

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