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Aid for the Steelhead? It's Up the Creek

A fish ladder under I-5 in Orange County will help the rare trout swim upstream to spawn.

November 18, 2005|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Stepping up efforts to help endangered steelhead trout make a comeback in Southern California, a state wildlife agency on Thursday agreed to pay for a $1.2-million fish ladder in Orange County that will enable the trout to swim upstream and spawn.

The ladder will help fish migrating from the ocean to swim through a concrete culvert under Interstate 5 on Trabuco Creek in San Juan Capistrano. Currently, fish swimming upstream can go only as far as a large pool at the bottom of the culvert.

The ladder will resemble a wide concrete stairway with eight to 12 steps, each about 1 foot higher than the other. During the rainy season, fish will be able to rest in 3-foot-deep pools between jumps.

State biologists in May 2003 spotted what they believed were southern steelhead trout at the bottom of the culvert, the first sighting there in decades.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Fish ladders -- An article about fish ladders in the Nov. 18 California section said San Mateo Creek was in Orange County. The creek is in San Diego and Riverside counties.

The ladder will help provide access to 13 miles of rocky-bottomed streams -- potential spawning habitat -- that reach into the Santa Ana Mountains.

The project is the culmination of two years' work by Trout Unlimited of California, part of a national conservation group with more than 9,000 members.

The ladder is the group's largest project on the West Coast, where members have been working with state Department of Fish and Game officials to restore and preserve steelhead trout habitat in Orange County.

"This is our billboard project," said George Sutherland, Trout Unlimited's Southern California project coordinator. "I'm proud of it."

The ladder is being paid for by the state Wildlife Conservation Board, an arm of the Fish and Game Department.

Sporadic steelhead sightings over the last few years have raised hopes that the species, once found throughout local rivers but absent since the 1960s, could make a comeback.

One of the key elements of trying to rehabilitate an endangered species is to open up creeks where the animal used to live, said John O'Brien, a Fish and Game biologist.

Steelhead are rainbow trout that have left freshwater rivers for the sea, then return to spawn in fresh water. At sea, the fish turn silver and gain their signature stripe.

The federal government in 2002 extended the southern steelhead's endangered status from Malibu to the Mexican border after 40 steelhead were seen in San Mateo Creek in Orange County.

A year later, state biologists spotted more steelhead in Trabuco Creek. The fish under study have ranged from 17 to 30 inches long and weighed about 7 pounds.

Steelhead usually try to return to spawn in the stream where they were born, but if they can't, Sutherland said, the fish will swim up any stream.

"So even though they prefer going home, they'll stop at the neighbor's for dinner," Sutherland said.

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