Can We See A Return of the Endangered Southern Steelhead Trout?

  • Posted on 6 March 2023
  • By Conner Everts, SC Water Committee
Conner Everts holds a Small Chinook Salmon in British Columbia
Conner Everts holds a Small Chinook Salmon in British Columbia
It is difficult to perceive, the fish long associated with the big rivers of Northern California to the Pacific Northwest and all the way to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula originated in the mountains of Baja California and migrated north to the Southern California Coast. 
I learned all of this after fishing in Malibu Creek as a youth for warm water pumpkinseed and catfish in deep pools after winter rains. I had a huge hit on my line and the fish kept running and spooled me, taking all of my line until it broke but not before I saw the silver streak. As a teenager, after the big floods of 1969, I caught steelhead in the pool below the tall and notched Matilija Dam and released them. 
Many years later I was part of the Southern California Steelhead Coalition and the effort to protect and restore the fish and their natural habitat through the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with state and federal agencies, which prevents the fishing or “take” of any of the fish. We have, through oral histories and gathering old photos, collected a view into the past before our amnesia of our natural history in Southern California. 
That almost lost history includes my grandfather before me, catching not just sea-run trout but salmon all the way down to Newport Bay and the huge runs in the Santa Clara River that passes under the 101 freeway in Oxnard. The salmon can smell their natal stream in the fresh water flowing into the ocean and a small remnant still try to return after very wet winters and show up offshore. 
It seems almost impossible to imagine that steelhead trout have survived, in dense Southern California with all the development, building into flood plains, dumping of pollution and sewage plants that used to overflow into coastal streams that dumped into the ocean, often closing beaches - yet the steelhead survived. They survived as the origin of the species and became the most adaptable.
Steelhead travel from the ocean to freshwater streams to spawn but unlike pacific salmon they are opportunistic and can swim up any stream and don’t perish on their spawning run. Steelhead - rainbow trout whose genetics cause them to run to the sea, gain great size and a silver sheen, hence their name. In Southern California, the often dry and flashy rivers push the winter storm surge of a big rain which breaks open the coastal lagoon allowing the fish access to the river. 
The Southern subspecies will travel upstream through the high and racing waters to spawn and return to the sea, while their young or smolts, survive in deep pools and coastal lagoons.  Rainbow trout are associated with high elevation and cold snow melt into mountain lakes and creeks while the southern sea-going version can survive in much warmer waters. 
As previously mentioned, these magnificent fish also survive in the Southern California urban areas. Their home, the headwaters are often protected in national forests but for the rest of their journey steelhead are impeded by various obstructions from road crossings to dams which block access to upstream breeding grounds.  
The fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and by a movement (Matilija Coalition) to remove dams from Ridge Dam in the canyon of Malibu Creek to Matilija Dam, off a tributary of the Ventura River near Ojai. These dams serve little purpose for water supply, having filled with silt many years ago and especially after big fires. They hold back the natural replenishment of sand to our beaches. 
Even on the upper Arroyo Seco Creek, (from above Pasadena and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), that feeds into the concrete channelized LA River, there is a very active group (Arroyo Seco Foundation), working to protect the existing trout and their habitat. 
This is the reason why this seemingly innocuous act by Governor Newsom to divert more water from the Delta with his Executive Order is so harmful to native fish whether the Chinook Salmon, Delta Smelt or Steelhead Trout – it impedes spawning. It also damages the fisheries industry for those who rely on it.
So, hike up the coastal streams and creeks in almost wilderness, far from the urban fray, to see the dams that need to come down. Climb the trail along the upper Arroyo Seco Creek from the upper JPL parking lot, as I did with the technical advisory group working on steelhead recovery. I did not make it to the end of the long hike to Brown Mountain Dam but returned with Tim Brick, water warrior and longtime Arroyo Seco Foundation executive director to the Hahamongna Nursery for a free rock rose and a mutual recounting of our California water wars. Mentor and engage our youth with these histories and stories, luckily I had a younger friend to pass these memories to. 
As you save water and relish the deep snow on our local mountains and snow capped mountain tops, remember where your water comes from and where it goes. Communicate through emails, calls, office visits, with your local water agencies, cities and LA County to not just save water through incentives but maintain some of that water to flow for the noble steelhead fish. Not all water that flows to the ocean is wasted despite what others may say. As we must learn to adapt to the extremes of climate whiplash, so do the fish and other creatures. Water is life.
Quick Facts from NOAA Fisheries (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)
WEIGHT - Up to 55 pounds
LENGTH - Up to 45 inches
LIFESPAN - Up to 11 years
THREATS - Climate change, Commercial and recreational fishing, Habitat degradation, Habitat impediments (dams), Habitat loss
REGION - Alaska, West Coast

Conner Everts is the Executive Director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance and once a southern steelhead fisherman, who hopes to see local dams removed in his lifetime.

Header image: Steelhead trout can reach up to 55 pounds in weight, although average size is much smaller. By Center for Biological Diversity

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