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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Spawning Migration of Delta Smelt in the Upper San Francisco Estuary


While there is substantial information about the upstream migration of commercially and recreationally important fishes, relatively little is known about the upstream migration of small-bodied species, particularly through estuaries. In the San Francisco Estuary, there is a major need to understand the behavior of delta smelt Hypomesus transpacificus, a small pelagic fish listed under the state and federal endangered species acts. The spawning migration period may be critical as upstream movements can result in entrainment in water diversions. In general, delta smelt live in the low-salinity zone of the estuary and migrate upstream for spawning. During the fall pre-migration period, delta smelt remain primarily within the low-salinity zone in the western Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Bay. There were no significant upstream shifts of fish into fresher water during late fall, suggesting that delta smelt do not show pre-migration staging behavior. Following winter “first flush” flow events that appear to trigger migration, upstream movement rates are relatively rapid, averaging 3.6 km/d, a finding consistent with results from particle-tracking simulations, laboratory studies, and other fishes. Like some other native fishes, delta smelt apparently “hold” in upstream areas following migration; most do not spawn immediately. Overall, delta smelt fit the pattern of a diadromous species that is a seasonal reproductive migrant. Emerging data suggest that there is variability in the migration behavior of delta smelt, a pattern contrary to the reigning viewpoint that all smelt migrate in winter.

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