After a four-month survey and examinations in Malibu and San Diego laboratories, state biologists have concluded that a small number of steelhead trout--a prized giant fish that was thought to have died out in Southern California--have returned to Malibu Creek.
The creek is believed to be the steelhead's southernmost home in the United States.
As a protective measure, organizers of the survey recommended last week that all fishing be prohibited in a 2.5-mile stretch of the creek between the ocean and Rindge Dam from Dec. 1 until the Friday before Memorial Day, which corresponds roughly to the steelhead spawning season.
Restrictions on Fishing
During the rest of the year, organizers wrote in a report delivered to the state Department of Fish and Game last week, fishing should be restricted to anglers with barbless hooks.
They would have to release any trout they catch, because of the difficulty of identifying juvenile steelhead, which are often mistaken for adult rainbow trout. Currently, licensed anglers are permitted to keep five trout.
Limits for other kinds of fish in the creek, including bluegill, bass and green sunfish, would not be affected when fishing resumed after the steelhead spawning season.
Bob Rawstrom, the state's chief of inland fisheries, said he supports the report's recommendations and expects the state Fish and Game Commission to consider the change in policy at a meeting Oct. 3 in Sacramento.
Rawstrom said the regulations, if approved on an urgency basis, could take effect by early December.
He said that he would like to keep the restrictions in place for three to five years and then review the progress of the steelhead population.
"I'd like to see anglers down the road able to fish for steelhead there," Rawstrom said.
To anglers and biologists alike, the steelhead trout is a magnificent and mysterious fish. It begins life as a rounded, dark rainbow stream trout, then slims to a cigar shape and turns bright silver, transforms its kidneys to adapt to salt water and eventually heads for the open sea.
Like the salmon, which is many times more common, the steelhead trout generally returns to its native creek to spawn.
Unlike salmon, the steelhead often survives the reproduction process, staying in the stream for a few months and then swimming out to the ocean again. It may even come back to spawn another time.
The steelhead's ocean residency gives it access to a richer diet than most freshwater fish. The menu is shrimp and smaller fish rather than creek insects.
And so the steelhead grows. An adult can weigh anywhere from 6 to 32 pounds. Ordinary rainbow trout rarely weigh more than a few pounds.
The fish is much sought after by anglers, who spend hundreds of dollars apiece to travel to the steelhead's haunts in northern California--especially on the Klamath, Smith and Trinity rivers--and in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
In centuries past, nearly every Southern California river boasted an annual steelhead spawning run. But since 1900, the taming of the land has killed off runs in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Dams blocked the steelhead's way to the coolest areas, where the fish spawn; smooth concrete channels replaced the gravelly stream beds where the eggs were hidden; the waters were polluted; springs were choked off, and creeks dried up.
The last steelhead run in the urbanized south, researchers thought, was at San Juan Creek in Orange County in 1969.
However, after hearing rumors for years that a few steelhead had been spotted at Malibu Creek in the late '70s, volunteers began working this year with the Department of Fish and Game to document the run.
The surveys were organized by two environmentalists: Jim Edmondson, president of the southern region of California Trout Inc., and Giles Manwaring, president of the West Los Angeles chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Fishing clubs supplied the manpower.
During the program, surveyors sighted what they thought were 17 smolts, juvenile steelhead that have changed color and are preparing to migrate to sea. Smolts are about the same size as the ordinary adult rainbow trout.
A pair of volunteers also came across a fisherman who had landed a 27-inch, six-pound steelhead and photographed him with his catch.
A second adult steelhead, a 15-inch specimen caught by a San Fernando Valley angler, was submitted to a state biologist in San Diego.
The biologist, William E. Tippets of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, also examined several ear bones from the smolts.
Tippets, who was not available for comment, notified Manwaring and Fish and Game officials this month that the large size of the ear bones has convinced him that the fish were juvenile steelhead rather than adult rainbow trout.
The surveyors' report, written by Manwaring and Edmondson, did not attempt to pinpoint the reason for the steelheads' return.
Experts have theorized that the discharge by the Tapia sewage treatment plant of 3.5 million gallons of treated water into the creek each day increased the creek's flow after several years of drought and lured errant steelhead from the ocean to re-establish a spawning ground.
"We still have several years of study ahead of us before we deal with those issues," Manwaring said. "We'd just like to know how many steelhead are there.
"I still wonder if they'll come back next year," Manwaring said. "Or was this year the last of it?"