Finding Trout in SoCal

When he was a kid in the 1970s, Ed Pert used to head down to San Juan Creek in San Diego County and meet old timers there who would talk about a creek so full of fish, ‘you could walk across it on their backs.’ Pert would fish back then with his buddies alongside those golden anglers and imagine not just the bounty but the beauty of the fish – namely the Southern California steelhead.

Steelhead trout fishing in Lompoc in 1912; PHOTO: UC Santa Barbara
Steelhead trout fishing in Lompoc in 1912; PHOTO: UC Santa Barbara

The fish, a plucky member of the rainbow trout family, is a multi-faceted swimmer. They are born upstream as a freshwater fish and some, as they get older, head out to the ocean taking up a salt-water persona, hence steelhead. Others, stay freshwater rainbow trout and never venture westward.

Naturally, the seasonal ebb and flow of the creeks guide the fish in their journey to and fro from fresh to salt water. Hundreds of coastal streams, creeks and rivers in Southern California from Santa Maria to Northern Baja are the steelhead’s highway. Take them away, and the fish disappear. Which is exactly what happened in the 1980s.

Today, it’s estimated the 80-90 percent of prime streams are blocked by dams and other barriers; more than 75 percent of the habitat is gone because of development and pollution here in SoCal. But things are set to change.

Pert was recently checking out new “California Steelhead Story” exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific where folks can see this remarkable fish up close – and understand the work currently being done to revitalize the habitat of this once plentiful scaled-wonder that was put on the endangered species list in 1997.

Steelhead on display at the Aquarium of the Pacific. PHOTO: Brenda Rees
Steelhead on display at the Aquarium of the Pacific. PHOTO: Brenda Rees

Like many, Pert wants to see creeks full of fish. As the South Coast Regional Manager with the California Fish and Wildlife, he’s part of the restoration process that is removing (or partially removing) barriers, reducing water pollution and restoring habitat from creeks from Santa Barbara to San Diego County so the fish can once again swim, spawn and swirl about.  (Read more about the program here.) The fish have tenacity on their side, says Pert. “They have evolved to handle rough conditions, like droughts and floods,” he says. “We have good reason to believe we will see their numbers increase.”

“Oh, the odds are in their favor,” agrees Rose Dagit, a senior conservation biologist with the RCD and Santa Monica Mountains. “They have shown they can handle change and impacts on their environment, they are resilient, but we have to make sure they have a healthy eco-system for them to succeed.”

Dagit routinely counts the fish that have made their way in to the Topanga Creek, (she also surveys other creeks) but explains that, unlike other species that *must* mate and spawn in specific areas, steelhead can use any available creek. They aren’t picky – which is a very, very good thing.  Still, Topanga Creek (which hasn’t been altered by man) is a good baseline to determine the health of the steelhead which is why she’s out there with volunteers regularly to survey the steelhead.

Dagit is also interested in what’s been propagating the in newly rehabbed Malibu Lagoon – once overflowing with non-native fish and aquatic critters, the lagoon is full of “thousands of larvae from native fish like gobies, top smelt and baby sculpins,” she says.  She’s also careful not to list locations where steelheads have been seen because it may entice fishermen despite the $25,000 fine; but the recent discovery of a steelhead in the Malibu Lagoon (yes, just one) was noteworthy to share with the public as an example of how the area is rebounding. It’s the first time in decades a steelhead was spied in these waters.

Jayni Shuman, RCDSMM Stream Team.
…and then there was one. Steelhead in Malibu Lagoon. PHOTO: Jayni Shuman, RCDSMM Stream Team.

Mysterious in so many ways (How sustainable are they in the ocean?  How do they physically make the change from fresh to salt water? Why do some stay put as trout and others try their luck with the ocean? Just how many of them *are* they?) the search for steelhead is  the ultimate Where’s Waldo’s Trout game.

Big things, however, can start with one fish…well, make that two.

Anthony Spina, supervisor of the NOAA’s Regulatory Steelhead Team, also explains that not just the trout will benefit from more open flowing creeks. Other critters – fish, insects, mammals and maybe even the pond turtle, another species teetering – will likely return to the watery habitats.

Spina of course can imagine another creature returning to SoCal’s creeks – anglers.  It’s no wonder that fishing organizations and clubs are behind the revitalization efforts — and yes, even the aquarium’s steelhead exhibit.

“Education is a big priority and letting people know what we are doing today to help these fish survive tomorrow,” says Spina. Alluding to the mysterious nature of the fish, Spina compares the appearance of steelhead trout to a desert bloom. “Sometimes it’s here, some seasons it’s not, but when it happens, you truly appreciate them for what they are,” he says.

— By Brenda Rees, editor