Happy Earth Day everyone. To celebrate, let’s have a discussion about the least popular animal in California since the infamous spotted owl. I present to you the delta smelt.
So, what did the delta smelt do to deserve the hatred? The same thing the spotted owl did — lived its life. People chose to utilize the law to protect these species and their habitats. This in turn inconvenienced some narrow-minded people. These narrow-minded people advance one of the stupidest arguments ever to attack the protection of these species. It goes something like, “California cares more about a fish than they do humans.”
So let’s unpack that argument. It falls apart rather quickly with some analysis and an understanding of one concept. The delta smelt is an indicator species. Generally an indicator species is any biological species that defines a trait of the environment. Zooming in on resource, species and habitat management, an indicator species is one that is sensitive to and therefore to serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes. Typically an indicator species is in the middle of the food chain. They eat critters/plants in the habitat. They are eaten by other critters. So the rationale behind monitoring an indicator species is that if it’s healthy and doing well it is likely the interconnected system that constitutes its habitat is also thriving.
Here’s a quick example about how people intuitively understand the concept. When the settlers were emigrating from the east coast out to the plains and the west access to fresh water was at a premium. Sometimes they ran out and had to source drinking water. How would one go about doing that? The settlers looked for frogs. The presence of frogs indicated a (relatively) healthy source. No frogs equaled trouble. So that is the gist of indicator species.
It is patently absurd to state that regulators and advocates “care” more about the health of the delta smelt than the humans. The fallacy here is that regulating only in the interest of humans would always benefit humans. Remember, we are (still) completely dependent on the Earth and its systems. We know relatively little about how these systems interconnect. I believe we should err on the side of caution because the effects can be wide reaching from operating solely for the benefit of people. What about people that enjoy recreational uses of water (fishing, kayaking, etc.)? What about increased costs of treating water to drinking standards as the system degrades? Lots o’ questions here.
So, why do I think that people push this argument? One reason is that it appeals to “common sense”. I’ve written about previously. The baked in presumption that the simplest approach will bring the best results is off base. The next reason is just plain tribalism. Hippie-punching is a treasured hobby for a segment of people. California is a shining beacon of everything that is wrong in the world to that same segment. So it’s no big deal to twist logic to get some cheap shots in. The last one I’m going to advance is the complete self-absorption of our culture. We demand that everything be done so it benefits us directly. The concept of indirect benefits is becoming un-American, apparently.
So on Earth Day, try to think in a utilitarian manner. Let’s try to do things that benefit the greatest number of people because we are dealing with shared resources, health and safety issues, and a future for our children. We can all go back to being petty tribalists tomorrow (or not!). Give the delta smelt a break. It’s only trying to survive and ensure a future for its family and specie. The people who are trying to assist it by protecting flow rate, habitat, food sources, etc., are doing so for your benefit.
ETA: If anyone is curious as to how the delta smelt is doing, sampling at 40 previously friendly to smelt sites found one delta smelt. h/t Trollhattan. Thx buddy!