To protect a small population of steelhead trout, a prized giant that was thought to have died out in Southern California, the state Fish and Game Commission has decided to close the southern 2.5 miles of Malibu Creek to fishing for six months a year, beginning Dec. 1.
Earlier this year, volunteer survey teams and state biologists documented the return of the steelhead. The creek is believed to be the southernmost home of steelhead, which grow more than twice as large as other kinds of trout.
To Southern California sportfishermen, the discovery means that, eventually, they may not have to leave the Los Angeles Basin to challenge the steelhead, renowned for its size and strength. Now, throngs of anglers spend hundreds of dollars apiece every year 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.
Bob Rawstron, the state's chief of inland fisheries, has said 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," Rawstron said.
To wildlife experts, the return of the fish to an urban, southern setting where the species died out long ago, may mean that the steelhead population, which is declining statewide, is strong enough to stage a comeback--to adapt, with a little help, to a changed environment shaped by modern industry.
In a unanimous decision, the commission recently approved fishing regulations proposed by Giles Manwaring and Jim Edmondson, organizers of the Malibu Creek survey. The Office of Administrative Law has 10 days to review the regulations. If accepted as expected, the rules will take effect immediately, said commission staff member Ron Pelzman. Game wardens will post signs at the creek to notify the public.
Currently, the creek is open to fishing year-round and licensed anglers are permitted to keep five trout.
Under the new regulations, all fishing will be prohibited in the creek between the ocean and the Rindge Dam from Dec. 1 until the Friday before Memorial Day, which corresponds roughly to the steelhead spawning season.
During the rest of the year, fishing will be restricted to anglers with artificial lures equipped with a single barbless hook. They will be required to release any trout they catch, because of the difficulty of identifying juvenile steelhead, which are large enough to be mistaken for adult rainbow trout.
Limits for other species in the creek, including bluegill, bass and green sunfish, would not be affected after the steelhead spawning season ends and fishing is allowed to resume.
Magnificent and Mysterious
To anglers and biologists alike, the steelhead trout is a magnificent and mysterious fish. It begins life as a rounded, dark rainbow stream trout, but 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 hundreds of 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 fresh-water 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.
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 stream beds where the eggs are hidden; the waters were polluted; springs were choked off and creek beds dried up.
Last Known Run
The last steelhead run in the urbanized south, researchers thought, was at San Juan Creek in Orange County in 1969.
But after hearing rumors for years that a few steelhead had been spotted at Malibu Creek in the late 1970s, volunteers began working this year with the Fish and Game Department to document the run.
The surveys were organized by two environmentalists: Edmondson, president of the southern region of California Trout Inc., and Manwaring, president of the West Los Angeles chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Fishing clubs supplied the manpower.
During the course of the program, surveyors sighted what they thought were 17 smolts, which are juvenile steelhead that have changed color and are preparing to migrate to sea.