Photo by Keith May"A flash of silvery light in the current, a streak of disappearing line in a pool, a leap so powerful it strips your reel to the backing."
—from Clark C. Van Fleet's Steelhead to a Fly
That's how Van Fleet described the elusive steelhead trout, a massive fish that once thrived along the California coast. Today, San Francisco-based Caltrout figures the fish is almost extinct. The group found a 90 percent decline in the steelhead-trout populationalong the north coast over the past century, a 91 percent decline in the central coast, and a chilling 99 percent decline in Southern California—from 50,000 adult fish living south of Santa Barbara in 1945 to barely 200 today.
But that 1 percent may be climbing. In early May, state biologists discovered what are almost certainly 21 southern steelhead trout in San Mateo Creek near Trestles Beach. Long thought extinct south of Malibu Creek in LA County, the appearance of steelhead in the most important watershed (and only remaining clean river mouth) in Southern California is a stellar event for local environmentalists.
The steelhead is also likely to become an important player in the county's proposed Foothill-South toll road.
"This is huge," said Mark Babski of the Surfrider Foundation's San Clemente chapter, who says the discovery is a boon to those opposed to the Transportation Corridor Agencies' (TCA) plans for a 16-mile toll road linking Rancho Santa Margarita to San Clemente. "It's really a privilege to have these fish here. They're like the canary in the coal mine. They say a lot about the health of the local ecosystem: if it's healthy, then the fish live."
Unlike rainbow trout, steelhead live much of their lives in the ocean but spawn in creeks and their tributaries. For years, fishermen have occasionally spotted a steelhead in San Mateo, but no one really knows why so many are spawning there now. The best explanation holds that increased rainfall in recent years opened the tributaries steelhead use for spawning.
More than simply another endangered species, the steelhead could revolutionize the anti-toll-road movement. Babski notes that their discovery could bring into the opposition huge—and passionate—fishing interest groups such as the 5,500-member Caltrout and the 100,000-member, Virginia-based organization Trout Unlimited.
"Steelhead are the best indicator of watershed health we have in California,"said Caltrout conversation director Jim Edmondson. As for what toll-road construction would do to the fish in San Mateo Creek, Edmondson said, "Any disturbance from ridgetop to ridgetop ultimately gets into the stream."
For fishermen, steelhead represent a superstar fish. Ranging from 21 to 35 pounds, full-grown steelhead are impressive and beautiful in ways other San Mateo Creek endangered species—like the diminutive Tidewater Gobi—simply aren't. Whole issues of Trout and Steelhead & Salmon focus on where and how to land the fish, as well as rigorous discussions on the importance of catch-and-release practices in maintaining the dwindling steelhead population.
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In 1900, steelhead ranged throughout the state, spawning in coastal watersheds from the Oregon to Mexican borders. They lived as far inland as Lake Tahoe in the north and the San Bernardino Mountains in the south. Because of habitat destruction wrought by highway, commercial and residential development, substantial steelhead populations remain only in the Feather River north of Sacramento and in a few creeks between Oregon and Malibu. Locally, the 5 freeway construction drove the steelhead from San Mateo Creek decades ago.
DNA testing on fin samples taken from the San Mateo fish is still ongoing, but Babski has little doubt the trout are steelhead. "Experienced, highly educated state biologists say they're sure the fish are steelhead," he said. "It's pretty much a given."
Even without the steelhead issue, there are already more than enough reasons to think the Foothill-South will be a disaster. There are the financial problems: looking at the other toll roads already managed by the TCA, it's likely the Foothill-South won't bring in nearly enough revenue to pay off the billions of dollars in bonds TCA officials will need to fund it. There are the environmental problems: the road (assuming TCA dumps the proposed route slicing through the heart of San Clemente) will slash through the San Onofre State Park. And the new road will threaten the habitats of nine other endangered species living in and around San Mateo Creek. Then there's the environmental/aesthetic/athletic/cultural problem: it will, along with the 5 freeway, further urbanize Trestles Beach—perhaps the greatest surfing spot on the West Coast.
"Creeks from Malibu all the way to the Mexican border should be designated steelhead habitats," said Babski. "For the toll-road people, this is a nightmare."