Endangered species policy draws fire from all sides

Advocates of industry and environment have each taken a stand, for different reasons, against an endangered species-listing proposal that could have long-term implications for Malibu Creek.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

As the public comment period winds down on a new policy that could affect endangered steelhead trout in Malibu Creek, both businesses and environmental groups are lobbying against the government’s proposal to include certain artificially bred fish in population counts that determine whether species are endangered.

Industry advocates say the proposal does not count enough hatchery fish, making it too easy for species to be considered endangered, while environmentalists allege the policy could allow businesses to sidestep environmental requirements by dumping money into hatcheries instead of restoring fish habitats.

There are currently no hatcheries operating in Southern California to supplement the endangered steelhead trout population, but environmentalists say allowing some hatchery fish to be included in population counts could encourage development of hatcheries instead of restoration of habitats like Malibu Creek, which some say cannot support trout any longer because it is polluted and blocked by Rindge Dam. (There is a $2 million study underway by the U.S. Corp of Engineers to determine whether removal of the dam would restore creek habitat, allowing for repopulation of wild steelhead. Cost estimates to remove the dam are $40 million, which some critics say is prohibitive and not worth the effort.)

“[The policy] leaves open a temptation for growing fish under an artificial situation in a hatchery versus the harder and more necessary work to restore fish habitats in Malibu Creek,” said David Pritchett, program director for the Southern California Steelhead Coalition.


“In Southern California, water is a valuable commodity,” he said. “And if a local water agency diverts water from a river and could just throw money at a hatchery and say, ‘That’s enough, we don’t have to restore habitat,’ they will.”

Craig Wingert, supervisory fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government body that created the new proposal for counting salmon and trout populations, said it was “certainly was not our intent to open a door” to reliance on hatcheries.

Wingert, who ran the only Southern California public hearing on the policy in Santa Barbara last week, said concerns like Pritchett’s had been balanced by concerns from businesses that wanted the government to include all hatchery fish in population counts and use the absolute numbers to determine which species were endangered. The proposal uses a more complex system of counting only hatchery fish most genetically similar to wild fish, and accounts for variables like lifespan and productivity.

“All of the people who were sort of private property rights advocates, what you might call the industry side, didn’t like the policy because, basically, it didn’t count numbers,” Wingert said. “They were really just pushing that we were supposed to just count up all the hatchery fish.”

Wingert said industry advocates were also upset that the new policy would not remove any species from endangered or threatened lists. The Southern California steelhead would remain classified as endangered, and two other species would be elevated on the watch lists-one from candidate to threatened, and one from threatened to endangered. Only the Upper Columbia River trout in Washington would be moved down a category, from endangered to threatened.

“The ironic thing is that we’ll probably be sued by both sides of the spectrum on this,” Wingert said. “But maybe that’s when we’ve got it right, when we’re getting it from both sides.”

Litigation is what spurred rewriting the policy in the first place, Wingert said. A 2002 ruling that barred the government from differentiating between wild and hatchery fish of identical genetic makeup caused mass confusion about which species should be considered endangered.

Some say the entire issue of restoring steelhead to Malibu Creek is moot.

Ronald Rindge, whose family constructed the Rindge Dam in 1924, said he was unsure steelhead were ever native to Southern California.

Rindge said explorer Gaspar de Portola, who led a 1769 expedition through California, did not mention trout in his diary until he reached Monterey. Furthermore, Rindge said, UCLA archeologists who analyzed bones in the upper watershed of Malibu Creek did not find trout bones.

“If the steelhead were so abundant, you’d think there’d be steelhead bones around,” he said. “The indication I have is that they weren’t there at all or that there were very few in number.”

He said the government should simply plant hatchery fish if it wanted trout in the creek.

Groups like CalTrout and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance have said the Rindge Dam should be removed to allow steelhead to naturally repopulate Malibu Creek, citing instances in which fish have gotten trapped in pools below the dam while apparently trying to migrate in from the ocean.

The government will be taking public comment on its proposal until Nov. 12 and will finalize the policy by June. Wingert said he did not anticipate major changes resulting from the public comment collected thus far.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

Related Articles





Latest Articles


%d bloggers like this: