Tidewater Goby’s Gift to the Habitat

Efforts to Protect the Endangered Fish Benefit Estuaries

The tidewater goby may not be the most prepossessing of fish, but efforts to protect it have made it a local sensation and benefited its brackish habitat.

The tidewater goby may not be the biggest or most prepossessing fish in Santa Barbara, but the conservation efforts involved in protecting it over the last decade certainly make it a local sensation. In the wake of the tidewater goby’s attaining federally endangered status in 1994, environmental groups and individuals worked hard to get this species the public concern and protection it needed.

Just two inches long, this little goby thrives in the slow-moving, brackish waters of coastal estuaries and lagoons. Male gobies make burrows in the muddy silt at the bottom and are courted by hopeful females intending to lay their eggs in the protected refuges. Once a male identifies a female suitable enough to enter his burrow (they are known to be highly selective), he will guard the eggs for about 10 days until they hatch.

This goby prime real estate comes at a price, though. Because it is highly sensitive to changes in salinity levels, temperature, water depth, and water flow, the tidewater goby is extremely affected by human influences on its habitat.

“Drought, wetland filling, and destruction of watersheds lead to fewer and fewer tidewater goby populations,” explained Kevin Lafferty, a UCSB professor who researches tidewater goby genetics. “These effects make it more likely for populations in entire regions to go extinct, which has already been demonstrated in Los Angeles and Orange County.”

Artificial breaching and draining of lagoons is one of the biggest threats to tidewater goby populations in Santa Barbara, as this process opens creek mouths to the ocean, exposes goby burrows to the sun (eggs in burrows dry up), creates a flow that rushes fish out into the ocean where they can’t adapt, increases salinity, and lowers temperatures. After much lobbying and public attention being directed to the situation, the city has stopped artificial breaching in Santa Barbara, and taken additional steps to limit risks to the environmental integrity of stagnant lagoons.

Brian Trautwein, environmental analyst for the Environmental Defense Center, tooting his organization’s horn, said, “Thanks to EDC’s work since 2000, the breaching of the Mission Creek Lagoon was stopped. Ever since, the lagoon has become a better habitat for a variety of birds and fish, and is larger and more beautiful than ever.”

The tidewater goby’s perilous condition has given rise to numerous restoration programs in Santa Barbara. Many individuals and environmental groups in addition to the EDC have participated in management and conservation plans to restore areas harboring the endangered species, Trautwein added. “EDC spearheaded the Mission Creek Tidewater Goby Management Plan in hopes of protecting the species from the Mission Creek Flood Control Project,” Trautwein said. “We need to recover the species so it is no longer endangered, and to do that we need to restore its habitats, which include the Mission and Laguna creeks.”

Another example of community support for the endangered fish came when the City of Santa Barbara planned to install an ultraviolet filtering system on both the Laguna and Arroyo Burro channels in efforts to limit high levels of pathogens in the water. The city was met by numerous groups and individuals concerned about the effects this installation would have on tidewater gobies and the freshwater food webs in general.

The resistance focused the city’s attention on mitigation efforts that needed to be considered before the filtering project could be implemented. These include a full lagoon restoration plan to ensure protection for the endangered species and to improve the overall habitat.

Besides the benefit to the tidewater goby, these efforts have fueled revisions in the city’s standard operating procedures, bringing focus to the countless other organisms living in these diverse ecosystems.

At this point, much depends on how comfortable Californians are with having less than 5 percent of their original coastal wetlands left, and whether or not they can countenance a coastal landscape without the wildlife, flora, and beauty of these areas. As Aldo Leopold once famously wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. I am one of those who cannot.”

For more information, see Fish and Wildlife’s Recovery Plan for the tidewater goby, with Lafferty’s journal references and suggestions for species revival:


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