Southern California Steelhead: It's Been A Tough 15 Years!

Southern California Steelhead (NOAA)

Saturday, August 18, marks the 15th anniversary of the federal listing of Southern California Steelhead, Southern California’s only native trout, as an endangered species.  The South Coast chapter of TU, which has worked for more than twenty years to bring back the southern steelhead to the coastal streams of Orange and northern San Diego Counties, marked the occasion by praising the efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and partner organizations in the Southern Steelhead Coalition to develop and implement a Recovery Plan and to support habitat restoration and fish passage projects during this time.

However, George Sutherland, long-time TU-South Coast chapter leader and steelhead activist, said, “It’s been a tough 15 years.  The good news is, southern steelhead are remarkably hardy and persistent in southern California, and they’re still coming back to our local streams every winter and spring, if we get enough rainfall.  The bad news is, we’ve got a warming climate – meaning drier winters and hotter summers -- and big challenges clearing the way for steelhead to make it upstream far enough to spawn successfully.  Until we can remove or mitigate some of the more critical fish passage problems, improve water flow and quality at critical times, and restore more aquatic and estuarine habitat, we will not see a real boost in steelhead numbers sufficient to de-list them, which is everybody’s goal.”

An estimated 55,000 adult southern steelhead once returned each year to rivers and streams all along the southern California coast, and anglers were catching plenty of adult steelhead, which can reach 40” in length and more than 30 pounds, right up into the late 1940s. But development, migratory barriers, water diversions and pollution took its toll, and now the estimated number of southern steelhead is a tiny fraction (perhaps one-thousandth) of its historic runs.

Southern steelhead are one of the most unique fishes of the family salmonidae (trout and salmon).  They have adapted marvelously to the seasonally dry streams and semi-arid climate of the southern California coastal region, and can survive for several years in isolated pools in the upper parts of coastal streams if necessary, waiting for big winter rains to open the sand bars at the rivermouths so they can out-migrate to the ocean.  In-migrating steelhead are capable of traveling 100 miles or more to reach cool, clean water in the upper watersheds.

Drew Irby, chair of the California Council of Trout Unlimited, noted that in 2002, 40 adult steelhead were observed in lower San Mateo Creek in Orange County. A year later, state biologists spotted more steelhead in Trabuco Creek in Orange County.  In 2009, a 37-inch steelhead was found in San Juan Creek, a couple hundred yards from the surf at Doheney Beach.  “Their habitat is highly compromised, particularly from drought and concrete barriers blocking their historic migratory passages,” said Irby. “Yet they still come back despite all odds. All they need is a bit of help.”

TU’s South Coast Chapter is working to increase awareness of the southern steelhead and build local support to improve habitat, remove barriers, and improve water quality and flow in coastal streams. In Trabuco Creek in San Juan Capistrano, for example, fish migrating from the ocean upstream can currently travel only as far as a large pool at the bottom of a concrete culvert. If this and other barriers to fish passage were reopened, steelhead would have access to 13 miles of high-quality spawning habitat that reaches into the Santa Ana Mountains.

Sam Davidson, Field Director for TU California, compared the historical migrations of steelhead to those of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, recognized every spring with a week-long festival to celebrate the annual return of American cliff swallows, a migratory bird that makes a 6,000 mile journey to Argentina and back every year.

“I hope someday we will also be celebrating the annual return of southern steelhead to their spawning grounds in southern California coastal streams,” said Davidson. “Southern steelhead are a unique part of this region’s natural heritage.  They are also an excellent gauge of the health of our coastal streams, as they need cold clean water to thrive.”

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