Report from 2050: San Francisco's Dead Zone

Pacific salmon is one of many native San Francisco Bay estuary species declared extinct

[Note: This was originally published on 13.7 Billion Years as part of "Reports from 2050," a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, based on current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

by Reynard Loki, 13.7 Billion Years

JANUARY 6, 2050 (San Francisco) -- Almost four decades ago, in 2011, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit conservation network Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) published the report "It's Getting Hot Out There," which outlined the ten most threatened ecosystems in the United States at the time.

Now a new study by the San Francisco-based non-profit conservation group Bay Delta Wildlife Alliance (BDWA) has found that one of them, the San Francisco Bay and Delta ecosystem -- a complex system of rivers, inland and coastal estuaries and riparian habitats located at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers -- is finally succumbing to the effects of anthropogenic climate change as well as various man-made stressors such as habitat encroachment, eutrophication and water redirection.

The health of this ecosystem is so degraded that scientists have little hope for its recovery. In 2011, 12 of the original 29 native delta species were declared either extinct or endangered. Today, all but one are extinct or endangered, according to the BDWA report.

The most difficult factor to combat -- the rise in temperature -- has warmed the waters of the Bay-Delta to such a degree that cool-water fish such as the Pacific salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and delta smelt simply cannot survive there any longer. Their populations are now extinct.

Though there have been many efforts to save these species over the past few decades -- including a ten-year fishing moratorium established in 2045 that has criminalized the catching, selling and buying of these food fish -- it has been a classic case of too little, too late.

"The combination of climate change, unchecked human activity and decades of rampant overfishing to satisfy consumer demand for these species has led directly to their ultimate demise," said BDWA executive director Harry Callahan. "The sad story of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem should be a warning to residents of other sensitive and critical regions around the world."

The report also declared extinct Swainson’s Hawk, California least tern, California black rail and clapper rail, Smith's blue butterfly, salt marsh harvest mouse, northwestern pond turtle, tiger salamander, tidewater goby, California freshwater shrimp and several vernal pool species.

The other threatened ecosystems that were listed in the 2011 ESC report include: Arctic sea ice, shallow water coral reefs, Hawaiian Islands, southwest deserts, California Sierra Mountains, Snake River Basin, Greater Yellowstone, Gulf Coast and the Greater Everglades.

"Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon, it has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable," said ESC executive director Leda Huta at the time the report was released. "If we are serious about saving endangered species from global warming, then these are the places to start."

Now, as many of these fragile ecosystems and species are gone or teetering on the edge, it is becoming quite clear that we weren't really serious after all.

image: Male and female Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) (credit: Dave Menke)

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