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New Sightings of Endangered Trout Surface

Wildlife: Wet winters in recent years have provided good conditions for steelhead to spawn. Species may be making a comeback.


Making a run for survival, more than 50 steelhead trout have been spotted in Ventura County in the past few weeks powering through rain-swollen streams. The sightings are part of a remarkable statewide resurgence for the endangered fish.

Five sleek, silvery smolt were intercepted on the Santa Clara River near Saticoy on Friday, and a dozen were nabbed in the same place earlier in the week. The river is being diverted to provide water to Oxnard, so scientists are collecting dozens of fish headed downstream, loading them into ice chests and releasing them to the estuary near Ventura Harbor.

The discoveries are part of a sudden upswing in steelhead sightings occurring throughout southern and central California this year. The fish are capitalizing on rushing streams after recent storms that dumped snow and heavy rain across the region. Adult fish are traveling upstream to spawn in mountain tributaries, and juveniles hatched last spring are headed for the Pacific in an ages-old migratory cycle that has been severely disrupted by human activities.

While the sightings represent a fraction of the historic steelhead runs, the migrations signal the beginnings of a comeback for a species so depleted by dams, pollution and water diversions that many authorities questioned whether fish remained in many Southern California streams.

The southern steelhead trout, a related but separate species from their Northwest cousins, were granted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1997. Strong swimmers, the ocean-running trout charge upstream to mate and, unlike salmon, can make the trek more than once in a lifetime. They are prized by anglers and embody the character of the West's wild rivers, yet their numbers have plummeted by 99% in Southern California. Probably no more than 500 adult fish spawn in the region's waterways.

Over a dozen adult fish, some as long a human leg, have been recorded in creeks and streams over the past few weeks from Merced to Ventura and Oakland to Malibu.

A 31-inch fish was inadvertently caught on the Calaveras River near Stockton recently. In the Santa Monica Mountains last week, anglers participating in a fish-recovery program spotted a large steelhead in Arroyo Sequit Creek near Malibu. They have also been seen in the Tuolumne River near Merced and in Alameda Creek in the Bay Area.

In Santa Barbara County, steelhead have been spotted in Rincon, San Jose and Montecito creeks. Last month, authorities cited a man who allegedly clubbed to death a 7-pound steelhead and hauled it away in a wheelbarrow. The fish, laden with eggs, was attempting to spawn in Carpinteria Creek.

Determined to protect another big spawning female from a similar fate, residents in a Santa Barbara apartment building are guarding a 27-inch fish that swam into Mission Creek on March 10. The fish has become a local celebrity, attracting spectators and local news coverage.

"These are big fish," said Marty Landsfeld, a computer programming director who keeps watch over the fish. "I've been here five years and I've never seen a fish that big. We have to protect it.

"It's a miracle to look down in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara and see these endangered fish mating right in front of you," Landsfeld said. "We were thinking of putting up yellow caution tape, but that would attract more people than it would keep away."

The increased sightings may be due to more people looking for steelhead since they were declared an endangered species. And the number of adult fish confirmed is less than two dozen--a small fraction of the thousands that once invaded Southern California streams during winter before a boom in the human population at the end of World War II.

But wet winters over the past five years have provided ideal conditions for California steelhead. Heavy rains create runoff that the steelhead use like freeways to reach spawning grounds and return to the ocean. Big storms are particularly advantageous, scientists say, because water blasts through sandbars that block creek mouths during dry months.

Dennis McEwan, steelhead specialist for the state Department of Fish and Game, said steelhead numbers have probably rebounded as a result of favorable environmental conditions.

"We wouldn't be seeing the numbers we're seeing without some population increase going on and a recolonization of former habitat," McEwan said. "It's very good news and we're incredibly encouraged by it."

Advocates for the fish, including anglers, environmentalists and some scientists, say the rebound probably will increase momentum for more steelhead protection in California.

Efforts are already underway to rebuild fish populations.

On the Ventura River, a steelhead conservation plan is being developed to balance the requirement to restore the fish with the needs of flood control agencies, water providers, property owners and recreational users. The first public meeting on the matter is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ventura City Hall.

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