A century ago, when the Chumash Indians lived in the Santa Monica Mountains from the west end of the San Fernando Valley to the coastline, travelers on horseback often reported that their mounts were startled when crossing streams by giant, aggressive fish charging at their legs in the shallow water. The fish were salmon and steelhead trout, protecting their egg-laden spawning beds with remarkable ferocity.
Today, of course, things are a bit different. Where the Chumash once roamed, condominium projects sit. Where horse-drawn wagons once journeyed, BMWs shriek along the slick roads of Las Virgenes Canyon and Malibu Canyon in Agoura and Calabasas. And Malibu Creek, which held a thriving population of steelhead as it flowed majestically along a 15-mile route through the rugged mountains in an uninterrupted flow of frothy rapids and deep, crystal pools, now has a dam breaching it and a sewage treatment plant and shopping malls on its banks.
But there was no place for the steelhead trout, a brilliantly colored sport fish treasured by anglers in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. At least that's what Bob Rawstron, chief of fisheries for the state Department of Fish and Game, thought.
"It was 1982 or 1983 and I was sitting next to a guy on a plane," Rawstron recalled. "When he found out I was with Fish and Game, he told this amazing story of how, for a few weeks each winter, he caught steelhead trout right from the beach in Malibu, where Malibu Creek flows into the ocean. Said he caught several of them every year."
Rawstron thought the man was simply telling a fish tale.
He was not.
Amid several million people, amid surfers and bathers and fast-food restaurants and movie theaters and pizzerias, the same strain of steelhead that once served the Chumash for both food and religious rituals still live, the legacy of steelhead from centuries past that spent their lives in the sea but always returned to Malibu Creek to spawn.
It is the southernmost steelhead spawning creek in North America. And the survival of the handful of adult steelhead spawners that still return to Malibu Creek is nothing short of amazing.
"There are perhaps 20 to 50 fish, adult fish that spawn in the creek," said Jim Edmonson, regional head of the environmental and sport fishing group Cal Trout. "It is a small portion, a remnant run of the original, ancient fish, but in the middle of all of this civilization and abuse, the fact that it still exists is just remarkable.
"Steelhead are a very hardy fish. You can push them a long way and they still find a way to cope. But, eventually, you push them too far. We are very close right now to pushing them too far."
Edmonson has devoted much of the past two years to Malibu Creek. He folded his construction company in order to devote all of his time to the restoration project. And with the help of the Department of Fish and Game, the national Isaac Walton League and other organizations, Edmonson has brought the creek and its steelhead back from the brink.
"It can still be saved," he said. "We may have caught it in time."
After two, three or four years at sea, the steelhead seeks the river in which it was born. Ocean catches of steelhead are extremely rare, and biologists say that the sea life of the fish remains a mystery. Sometime in February, though, the steelhead that came from Malibu Creek as 6-inch fish a few years earlier return, drawn by a still-unknown force, to their birth waters. And off the coast of Malibu, the adult fish gather, waiting for a heavy winter rain to send torrents of water pounding down the creek and crashing through the sand barrier that separates the stream from the sea for most of the year.
When the fresh water of the creek pours into the ocean, the steelhead respond in a frenzy, skimming over the sand bars under the cover of night, driving themselves tirelessly until they reach the brackish water of Malibu Lagoon. From there, the fish move upstream as far as 3 miles, carving out spawning beds in the gravel. The females deposit thousands of eggs and the males fertilize them. And then, quickly, they return to the sea while the stream is still high and their path unimpeded. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning.
The problem at Malibu Creek is that the best spawning waters, tiny creeks and tributaries tucked deep in the mountains, are more than 3 miles from the ocean. But the steelhead never see those waters because a dam, a concrete structure 125 feet high and 85 feet wide, blocks their path. The dam, built in the early 1920s by ranchers who needed water for irrigation and livestock, was abandoned by 1930 but still stands, unbroken and unyielding. Tons of silt and sand and rock have built up behind it, turning the once-beautiful stream through a steep canyon into no more than a trickle.
The dam has become the focus of Edmonson's crusade to save the Malibu steelhead. "We have to get rid of that dam. We have to open up the headwaters for these fish," he said.