Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sub-Lethal Responses of Delta Smelt to Contaminants Under Different Flow Conditions


The Delta Smelt is a largely zooplank­tivorous, endangered fish endemic to the San Francisco Estuary (the estuary). High flows increase the availability of fresh and brackish water habitat for Delta Smelt, but also may mobilize contaminants, potentially increasing toxicological stress. Here, we examine the association between contaminants and Delta Smelt health across contrasting water year types and flow-related management actions. Our study spanned the fall season of three years: 1 dry year (2018) bracketed by 2 wet years (2017 and 2019) and coincided with several management actions meant to benefit Delta Smelt. We collected field water from six sites in the estuary that encompass the freshwater and low-salinity habitat of Delta Smelt and analyzed the water for contaminant concentrations. After a 96-hour exposure to the field water, we assessed cultured Delta Smelt survival and the histopathological condition of the gill and liver. Insecticides, particularly fipronil metabolites, were the most prevalent contaminants detected in 2017 and 2018, and a variety of contaminants associated with the rice harvest were detected in 2019. No acute toxicity was observed during any exposure, but we observed negative effects in the livers of Delta Smelt exposed to agricultural water from the Toe Drain and Cache Slough during a 2019 pulse flow action, which coincided with elevated detections and concentrations of organic pesticides. Other noteworthy sub-lethal effects, likely occurring in response to contaminant mixtures, included severe gill lesions in Delta Smelt exposed to Decker Island water in 2019. In the drier year of 2018, lesions were generally mild or absent. Thus, the trade-offs between increased habitat availability and contaminant loading may provide one explanation for why Delta Smelt abundance does not consistently respond positively to outflow.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View