For many people, estuaries (where freshwater streams and rivers meet the ocean) and coastal wetlands are often thought of as muddy, mosquito-infested, foul smelling places of little value. However, once you move past the sulfurous rotten egg smell, you’ll discover one of Earth’s most productive and diverse ecosystems.
Coastal wetlands provide us with a suite of beneficial services such as nutrient cycling, storm protection, filtration of pollutants and sediments, and nurseries for many species of commercial importance. Unfortunately, these habitats are some of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, with a minimum of one to two percent lost per year. The California coast, in particular, has lost over 90 percent of its coastal wetland area in some regions, mainly due to rapid population growth and development. Consequently, the extensive anthropogenic, or human-induced, impacts on these ecosystems have led to the drastic decline of numerous plants and animals, causing many native species to now be listed as either threatened or endangered.
In Southern California, there are currently efforts underway for conservation and recovery of a highly endangered fish species that is critical to the ecology of California estuaries and lagoons. The fish in question is the federally endangered Tidewater Goby, and the few remaining populations in northern San Diego County appear to be in imminent threat of extinction.
The Tidewater Goby has been listed as federally endangered since 1994. This small, short-lived fish is only found off the coast of California, ranging from Del Norte County near the Oregon border, south to San Diego County. Cryptic and bottom-dwelling in nature, the Tidewater Goby generally inhabits coastal brackish water estuaries and lagoons that experience some degree of seasonal closure, temporarily isolating them from the sea.
Estuary closure typically occurs in the warm summer months when little to no rainfall leads to reduced freshwater input, allowing wave action to form sandbars at the mouths of small estuaries. These habitats have been heavily impacted by a suite of anthropogenic factors, limiting the amount of suitable habitat this species needs for recovery.
Critical Endangerment of the Southern Tidewater Goby
The endangered Tidewater Goby is currently being split into two distinct species. The new “Southern Tidewater Goby” species description is currently in review for publication. Genetic and morphological data both show that populations in southernmost California are distinct from those in the rest of the state. The range of this southern species is restricted to San Diego and Orange County and has only been found in nine coastal lagoons over the past 30 years. This suggests a high degree of persistent endangerment and the need for increased protection.
More recently, a drastic decline in habitat for Southern Tidewater Gobies has occurred between 2010–2014, likely caused by severe drought conditions and the introduction of invasive species. Unfortunately, this species is now only found in three small lagoons on U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County. The three lagoons are San Onofre Creek, Hidden Lagoon and Cockleburr Canyon Creek.
Perhaps most troubling is the inability to recover any gobies from Las Flores Creek since 2013, historically one of the larger, more stable lagoons on Camp Pendleton. This newly recognized and clearly endangered southern species is in imminent danger of extinction and will require ongoing active management.
Emergency Rescue From El Niño Storms
The survival of these three remaining southern localities on Camp Pendleton faced yet another threat this year from the projected magnitude of El Niño floods. During the first week of the year, a large storm hit the Southern California coast, bringing with it a considerable amount of rain (>2.5 inches measured in Oceanside, San Diego County).
This powerful storm caused the normally-closed San Onofre Creek lagoon to be washed out and opened to the ocean (see photo/video below), potentially causing further loss of Tidewater Gobies in one of the three remaining southern localities. In response, emergency recovery action was taken to maintain populations of Southern Tidewater Gobies in captivity.
On February 4, 2016, an emergency salvage effort was conducted to capture a portion of the three remaining Southern Tidewater Goby populations on Camp Pendleton to temporarily hold in captivity. A total of 378 gobies were recovered from all three of the remaining populations and successfully transported to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. These two aquariums quickly and graciously agreed to provide temporary housing and care for the gobies until the risk of El Niño storms has diminished. All captive gobies will be returned to their native estuarine habitats on Camp Pendleton by May 1, 2016.
This recovery was a collaborative effort between the University of California Los Angeles, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. While this emergency rescue was critical to save the species, it is only a short-term solution. The California coast represents valuable real estate and estuarine habitat must continue to be protected in order to conserve the Southern Tidewater Goby along with the plants and animals that share its habitat.
Below is a video of Tidewater Gobies enjoying their new temporary home, safe from El Niño storms, at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
Local Aquarium Exhibits
Take advantage of the rare opportunity to see this extraordinary endangered fish up close while you still can! Currently, there are three aquariums in Southern California that have tidewater gobies on exhibit. Visit their websites below for more information.
Santa Monica Pier Aquarium – Heal the Bay
1600 Ocean Front Walk Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: (310) 393-6149
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
2300 Expedition Way La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: (858) 534-3474
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
3720 Stephen M. White Drive San Pedro, CA 90731
Phone: (310) 548-7562