Correctly identifying the environmental factors that limit population growth and recovery of imperiled species is an essential element of any targeted conservation program. Abundance index values for delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), an imperiled fish in the upper San Francisco Estuary, have exhibited substantial inter-annual variation and the population is now at historically low numbers. Drawing from conceptual ecological models, we developed and applied a new multivariate analytical technique that incorporates a fundamental characteristic of limiting environmental factors– recognition that certain factors influence abundance in certain seasons or years, but they may have no influence on the species’ performance at other times. We observe that delta smelt occasionally experience years with population size increases, despite their ongoing long-term downward trajectory in numbers. The differences in environmental conditions that occur in years that prompt different population responses can provide insight into the environmental factors that limit species recovery. Nine temporally and spatially explicit covariates emerged from analyses that explain changes in inter-annual delta smelt abundance indices. We contrast those environmental factors with the factors that influence occupancy because distinguishing and focusing conservation actions on factors affecting delta smelt performance, rather than occupancy, should lead to the implementation of management and habitat-restoration actions that are more likely to benefit the fish. We think that the approach taken in this study can be a model for other species where salient data are limited and information needs are pressing.
Hamilton, S.A. and D.D. Murphy. 2022. Identifying Environmental Factors Limiting Recovery of an Imperiled Estuarine Fish. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 10:826025. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.826025