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Southern California Steelhead: The Endangered Species That Could

There are many who would say that extinction is a natural part of the cycle of life. This is...

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There are many who would say that extinction is a natural part of the cycle of life. This is true. It is estimated that 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Why should we care if animals, plants, or a fish species like Oncorhynchus mykiss are going extinct now? The natural background rate at which animals go extinct or are extirpated historically is generally low. However over the past 200 years the rate at which plants and animals are extirpated has increased exponentially by a factor of between 100 to 1000 times the natural background rate. It is estimated that this rate will continue to expand exponentially to 10,000 times the background rate in the next 50 years (Wagler 2-4). This means that we are in the midst of a mass extinction. We don’t know all the effects this will have for people in the future but it seems unlikely to be good. Healthy ecosystems provide clean water, habitat, recreation, and places to learn about plants and animals. It is well known that biodiverse ecosystems provide protections from epidemics and food source blights which can lead to famine and also that lack of genetic diversity can lead to catastrophic crop failures and loss of animal life and species. The loss of biodiversity and extinction of animals represent serious threats known and unknown not only to many plant & animal species but to our own animal species as well. Life is tenacious and human activity could never wipe out life completely but it does have the very real possibility of making the lives of our species very uncomfortable if not downright miserable.

Steelhead trout are members of a group of fish called Salmonids which include Salmon and Trout. It is an anadromous fish which means it is capable of living in both fresh and salt water. When they hatch from eggs in their natal gravel beds they are referred to as fry. Fry then go through a process called smoltification where their bodies become capable of surviving in both fresh and saltwater environments after which they are referred to as smolts. After becoming smolts they mature to adulthood in the environment of their selection (National 4). Steelhead are highly adaptable and may choose many life paths to suit a variety of possible environmental situations. This adaptability increases the species chances for survival. Steelhead may choose to stay in their natal freshwater streams completing their entire lifecycles in the headwaters of their birth. They may also swim downstream and mature in brackish estuaries before returning to their natal streams to reproduce. Lastly they may swim out into the open ocean where they grow and mature before returning to spawn (“Southern”). This third life path allows for the biggest strongest fish which produce the most eggs and have the greatest chance of success. In southern California, Steelhead are listed as a distinct population segment or DPS. All Steelhead are threatened but the DPS of southern California Steelhead are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (Katz et al. 3). It is not too late to save this fish. It will take a concerted effort by government agencies, private and public water agencies, local businesses, local agriculture, and citizenry to pull it off. While some question the value of attempting to save a species of fish, so much more than a single species of fish is at stake, and we can and should support the efforts being undertaken to restore local Steelhead populations and habitats.

The threat of extinction southern California Steelhead populations face is entirely due to human activities. This results from a variety of planning decisions and resource management and use practices over the past hundred and twenty years. Pollution from both direct (sewage and industrial wastes) and indirect (polluted runoff) sources also contribute to the decline of Steelhead populations. Examples of planning and resource use causing declines in Steelhead numbers include the building of dams, blockage of passage by roads with inadequate culverts, as well as flood control canals which can accelerate water flows to speeds too great for the fish to swim against. The removal of native plants and animals as well as the introduction of non-native plants and animals also wreak havoc on local habitats (Katz 4; National 4-5). Since it is clear that humans are pretty much the entire cause of the southern California Steelhead’s predicament it is only humans who can prevent the further annexation of places they can live. Protecting existing habitats as well as restoring ravaged river systems and watersheds is key to bringing back local populations of Steelhead.

The Steelhead will come back if given a chance. The tenacity of this fish is astounding and its continued existence is a testament to this observation. Some biologists were ready to write off the Steelhead as early as 1953. Fisheries biologist P. A. Douglas wrote in 1953 saying “I would be in favor forgetting the SH fishery, as I believe it is a lost cause below San Luis Obispo County” (qtd. in Algona 41). It’s not too difficult to see how he could hold this view. The obstacles to Steelhead recovery were many and growing all the time. Little thought was given to wild populations of southern California Steelhead when considering dams, water diversion and flood control channels. The fish were mentioned in planning meetings but sentiments like those expressed by Douglas prevailed and no provisions were made to allow fish passage beyond dams. Completed in 1953, the Cachuma Dam reduced the total habitat available to the Steelhead of the Santa Ynez River by two thirds (Algona et al. 41).

Yet somehow the fish remained in small numbers for all these years. Recovery efforts have been increasing and were given a significant priority boost in 1997 with the listing of the southern California Steelhead DPS as endangered by the National Marine Fisheries Services. Some people today express similar sentiments that the Steelhead in southern California is a lost cause. Peter Foy of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors explained his vote of no to approve the application for a grant to fund a study that would develop a plan for the building of a ladder that would allow fish access to upper Pole Creek like this, “We see there’s no fish; there is nothing up there.” (qtd. in Wilson) Overall the board approved the application for grant funds but many members expressed similar skepticism. Pole Creek is right next to Sespe Creek which is one of the most productive Steelhead creeks in the area and no biologists familiar with the species have expressed any doubt that the fish will use Pole Creek if given access (Wilson). The fact that Steelhead have persevered all these years with very little assistance is evidence that given the chance they will continue to occupy local habitats and will expand into old abandoned habitats when given access.

Volitional fish passages through impediments such as dams and water diversions will allow Steelhead to populate currently unavailable habitats. In 2008 a study conducted by biologist Elise Kelly Ph.D. found 59% of tagged smolts trapped above the Freeman Diversion Dam and released below it survived to the mouth of the estuary (7). In the part of the study done during 2008 Kelly’s team trapped and transported 133 Steelhead smolt and released them below the diversion. Of these 81 were tagged with transmitters and 49 were recorded swimming out into the ocean by receivers anchored at the mouth of the Santa Clara River estuary later that year (Kelly 19). This shows that were a volitional passage in place fish can make the trip in favorable years. It seems likely that violable passage can greatly increase the locations and options available for the Steelhead to successfully occupy habitat and reproduce. Existing plans for fish passage structures to allow fish by dams should be built and new passage structures must be planned and built in order that the Steelhead may gain access to places where they are able to live and reproduce.

Dams are one of the greatest factors related to the decline of southern California Steelhead. Plans for their removal are key in efforts to help open up places for the Steelhead to live and reproduce. There are dams which are no longer useful which could be removed. Mark H. Capelli identified two such structures, the Matilija and Rindge dams, in a paper he wrote for a conference in Ventura, CA on beaches and sand rights in 1999. Capelli notes that these dams no longer serve any purpose and could be removed if a nondestructive way is devised to transport the sediments trapped behind the dams to the beaches below them where they would have been naturally deposited over the last 75 or 95 years dam depending. This is a property rights issue, Capelli notes, as beach erosion is a persistent problem for coastal property owners and decades of beach material have been trapped behind many dams (). Every dam constructed in southern California has blocked access to habitat that could be exploited by Steelhead. This permanent fragmentation of habitat makes the use of prime gravel beds in cool headwaters above dams for spawning impossible. Increasing the lengths of river which fish can move through provides more options in finding suitable conditions to live and reproduce in, thus increasing their chances of survival. Removing dams whenever and where ever possible is always a good thing.

Numerous efforts are being made to increase the access Steelhead have to suitable habitat to live and reproduce in. Unfortunately these efforts often move at a painfully slow pace for people anxious for the continued future of the fish. Capelli estimates the recovery plan will take decades to get underway (Wilson). An example of efforts beginning undertaken now are current plans to move McGrath State Beach camping area further south. (O’Neal). This will increase the size of the estuary giving the Steelhead smolts a larger area to live in.  Attempts are being made to get fish ladders capable of allowing volitional travel of Steelhead constructed on several dams in the area as well. For those concerned about this issue Capelli says it’s important “for people to become familiar with the watersheds they live in, and how various types of activities affect different aspects of a river (water quality, flow patterns, etc.).” (Capelli Personal) People who are more aware of their watershed can better advocate for it and may recognize areas that could become problematic for fish.

The presence of these fish in southern California’s rivers and streams are a sign that we haven’t yet managed to destroy completely these environments on which they depend. The preservation and restoration of southern California’s remaining estuarine, riverine and riparian habitats will not only provide a place for Steelhead to live but places for many local animals to live as well. Endangered animals like the Tidewater Goby, Leasts Turn, and the Snowy Plover all reap the benefits of clean working river systems and habitats (Capelli Personal). Humans are certainly capable of devising ways of living in ecosystems without destroying those systems. This is really the only long term option. Destroying and degrading the ecosystems ability to support complex webs of multi varied life and their consequent interactions is not a sustainable course for people on an earth whose human population will continue to rise in the years to come.

We would be wise to attempt to ease the extent of the current period of mass extinction by supporting efforts to stem the tide of species loss in our local communities. The southern California Steelhead is a part of the character and history of this land. They have adapted to become uniquely suited to survival in this area and this evolutionary heritage is worth preserving. It would be a shame if future generations could only show their youth pictures of southern California’s extinct rivers and river fishes. For the sake of ourselves and future generations we should leave places for the Steelhead to live in and provide ways for them to get there.



Work Cited

Alagona, Peter S., Scott D. Cooper, Mark Capelli, Matthew Stoeker and Peggy Beadle. “A History of Steelhead and Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in the Santa Ynez River Watershed, Santa Barabara County, California.” Southern California Academy of Sciences. 111.3 (2012): 1-62. PDF.

Capelli, Mark H. “Damn Sand Rights: Removing Rindge and Matilija Dams.” Conference Proceedings, Sand Rights ‘99 Bringing Back the Beaches, California Shore and Beach & Coastal Zone Foundation. September 1999, Ventura. 1999. PDF.

—. Personal Interview. Apr. 27 – Mar.1 2015

Katz, Jacob, et al. “Impending Extinction of Salmon, Steelhead, and Trout (Salmonidae) in California.” Environmental Biology of Fishes 96. 10-11 (2013): 1169-86. ProQuest. PDF. 27 Apr. 2015.

Kelly, Elise. “Steelhead Trout Smolt Survival in the Santa Clara and Santa Ynez River Estuaries.” Santa Clara River Parkway. The California Department of Fish and Game. University of California, Santa Barbara. 28 Sep. 2008. PDF. 27 April 2015

National Marine Fisheries Services. Southern California Steelhead Recovery Plan Summary. Long Beach. NOAA. 2012. PDF.

O’Neal, Chris. “Coming Soon: A New McGrath.” VC Reporter. Southland Publishing. 04 Dec. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2015

“Southern California Steelhead: Against All Odds.” Dir. Michael E. Wier. Perf. Mark Capelli. California Trout, 2013. Youtube.

Wagler, Ron. “The Anthropocene Mass Extinction: An Emerging Curriculum Theme for Science Educators.” The American Biology Teacher Vol. 73 No.2 (February 2011): pp. 78-83. JSTOR. PDF. 27 April 2015

Wilson, Kathleen. “If a Route is Offered, Will Steelhead Trout Return to Creek?” Ventura County Star. Journal Media Group. 5 May. 2012. Web. 6 May. 2015





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