The Bio-Indicator: Species Preservation and Ecological Collapse in California’s Water Wars

Research Seminar by Andrew Lakoff (University of Southern California)
25th June, Rambla Poblenou, 156 (Room 1H). Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Organised by Israel Rodríguez Giralt (UOC) and Daniel López Gómez (UOC).

This talk focuses on a battle over an endangered species of fish that has been at the center of California’s water politics over the past two decades. It tracks the struggle, conducted by an alliance of biologists, fisherman, and environmental activists, to protect the humble delta smelt. Through the case of the smelt, it asks how the goal of species preservation, enshrined in the 1973 Endangered Species Act, is integrated into contemporary governmental practice–in particular, the regulation of water distribution. What values are at play in efforts to sustain the existence of non-human life in an arid region with ever-increasing water demands? How, in turn, are such values operationalized in a regulatory regime that seeks causal attribution for population decline and develops technical measures to forestall extinction? The essay suggests that smelt protection efforts are driven by two, temporally distinct value-orientations. The first is past-oriented, focusing on the preservation of existing species as a good in itself. This orientation is enshrined in the legislation that structures protection efforts, the Endangered Species Act. The second is future-oriented, focused on staving off an approaching ecosystem collapse that is signaled by the smelt population’s decline. Here the smelt serves not as a value in itself but as an “indicator” species; it is a proxy in a struggle against a broader catastrophe. From this latter perspective, the Environmental Species Act provides potentially powerful tools for limiting or redirecting human incursions into ecological systems, but it is limited by its narrow focus on species protection.