By Peter B. Moyle and Thomas L. Taylor
‘Tens of thousands of these fish once ascended streams in Spring. They are of major cultural importance to the Pomo people who harvested them as a valued food source.’ When you read statements like this, most likely it is salmon that come to mind. Yet this statement characterizes the Clear Lake Hitch or Chi, a non-salmonid fish, that ascends the tributaries to Clear Lake (Lake County) to spawn each spring (Thompson et al. 2013, Pfieffer 2022). Spawners are typically 10-14 inches long. They once moved up the streams in large numbers as soon as spring rains created sufficient stream flows to attract the fish (Moyle 2002, Moyle et al. 2015, Feyrer 2019).
We had the good fortune to be able to observe runs in the 1970s when we were studying Clear Lake’s unique fish fauna, following in the bootsteps of John Hopkirk. Hopkirk (1973) described the Clear Lake hitch and other Clear Lake fishes as unique forms adapted for life in this ancient (2.5 million years!) lake. Moyle was studying the lake’s fishes, while Taylor was documenting the distribution and ecology of the stream fishes (Taylor et al 1982.). Taylor also was (and still is) fascinated with photographing native fishes. The abundant hitch made good subjects. The photographs here show hitch spawning in streams in the 1970s and in 1990, when they were considerably more abundant than they are today, a reminder of what we are now missing.
In the same period, graduate student Eugene Geary conducted a life history study of hitch because of their abundance and predictability, perfect for a M.S. thesis study (Geary and Moyle 1980). We were concerned about their long-term persistence in the lake because they were thought of as ‘rough fish’(Rypel 2021) and knew that another stream spawner, the Clear Lake splittail, had already been extirpated (Moyle 2002, Moyle et al. 2015). When exploring the spawning streams, at times we would see dozens of fish that were dead for no apparent reason. We were told that local kids had a tradition of ‘hitching’, killing fish for the fun of it. There was also a commercial fishery in Clear Lake that, while focused on Sacramento blackfish, harvested hitch every year as well. Non-native predators also took their toll. Local largemouth bass anglers still use a lure made to look like a juvenile hitch (see photo above). Yet, in the 1970s, hitch were abundant enough so that they were labeled as a “persistent” native fish in the paper on their life history (Geary and Moyle 1980).
This optimistic view of their persistence was overshadowed by the fate of splittail and thicktail chub which had been extirpated from Clear Lake, and by Sacramento perch, which were rare (and are now extirpated from the lake). In 1989, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife listed Clear Lake hitch as a Fish Species of Special Concern. In 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission listed it as Threatened. This year, the USFWS has agreed to consider listing it as Threatened (see https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/californias-clear-lake-hitch-back-on-track-for-endangered-species-protections-2022-04-14/). Taxonomic issues that might have prevented listing have now been resolved (Baumsteiger and Moyle 2019).
The causes of its rapid decline toward extinction are multiple and are tied to large-scale changes to Clear Lake and its watershed (Thompson et al. 2013, Moyle et al. 2015). However, the single biggest cause of the recent decline seems to be stream habitat degradation, including barriers, gravel mining, and loss of crucial spring flows for spawning and early development, as well as for transport of the larval fish back to Clear Lake. These problems are exacerbated by the current severe drought (e.g., Larson 2022). This spring, spawning hitch were found in only two tributaries (Kelsey, Adobe creeks) and many of those fish had to be rescued and returned to the lake, when streams stopped flowing (Pfeiffer 2022). Any eggs and larvae produced by these fish were stranded in the drying streams.
The fate of Clear Lake hitch is tied to restoring spring flows to spawning streams, along with barrier removal and other habitat restoration actions. Such restoration will take continued leadership by the Pomo people in the watershed, cooperation among the numerous agencies with authority in the region, citizen volunteer efforts (such as stream surveys), and lots of funding from state and federal sources.
Ideally, the actions to protect Clear Lake hitch would also stimulate interest in other remaining endemic lake-dwelling species such as Clear Lake tule perch, Clear Lake sculpin, and Sacramento blackfish. Saving the Clear Lake hitch could open a whole new chapter for fish conservation in Clear Lake and its tributary streams.
Peter B. Moyle is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and is Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.Thomas L. Taylor is a retired fish biologist with a long history of working on California fishes. He is a native fish enthusiast and has spent thousands of hours in streams photographing fish.
Baumsteiger, J., M. Young, and P. B. Moyle. 2018. Using the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) concept to protect fishes with low levels of genomic differentiation: conservation of an endemic minnow (Hitch). Transactions of American Fisheries Society 148:406-416. https://doi.org/ 10.1002/tafs.10144.
Feyrer, F. 2019. Observations of the spawning ecology of the imperiled Clear Lake Hitch. California Fish and Game 105:225-23
Geary, R. E., and P. B. Moyle. 1980. Aspects of the ecology of the Hitch, Lavinia exilicauda (Cyprinidae), a persistent native cyprinid in Clear Lake, California. The Southwestern Naturalist 25: 385-390.
Hopkirk, J.D. 1973. Endemism in Fishes of the Clear Lake region in Central California. University of California Publications in Zoology 96.
Larson, E. 2022. State, local, and tribal officials partner to rescue stranded Clear Lake Hitch. Lake County News, April 30, 2022. https://www.lakeconews.com/news/72411-state-local-and-tribal-officials-partner-to-rescue-stranded-clear-lake-hitch#:~:text=The%20hitch%2C%20a%20large%20minnow%20found%20only%20in,threatened.
Moyle, P.B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California, Revised and Expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Moyle, P. B., R. M. Quiñones, J. V. E. Katz, and J. Weaver. 2015. Fish Species of Special Concern in California. 3rd edition. Sacramento: California Department of Fish and Wildlife. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Fishes/Special-Concern.
Pfeiffer, J. 2022. Why I am fighting for a fish I have never seen. High Country News. May 25, 2022. https://www.hcn.org/articles/opinion-fish-why-im-fighting-for-a-fish-ive-never-seen.
Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46: 605-616 .
Rypel, A.L. 2021. Defending ‘Rough Fish.’ California Water Blog. University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences. December 19, 2021. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/12/19/defending-rough-fish/
Taylor, T. L., P. B. Moyle, and D. G. Price. 1982. Fishes of the Clear Lake Basin. Pages 171-223 in P. B. Moyle, ed., Distribution and Ecology of Stream Fishes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Drainage System, California. Publications in Zoology 115, University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
Thompson, L.C., G.A. Giusti, L.Weber, and R. F. Keiffer. 2013. The native and introduced fishes of Clear Lake: a review of the past to assist with decisions of the future. California Fish and Game 99(1):7-41.