Fish in crisis versus public safety, dollars

A Central California Coast Coho Salmon is one endangered species of fish that wildlife agencies and organization like CalTrout are worried will become extinct if measures are not taken to restore and improve the state's rivers and creeks. Photo by Morgan Bond

Local efforts to restore fish populations irk some because of costs and projects that, some say, hamper public safety.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

In an ongoing effort to bring public awareness to the imperiled conditions of California’s waterways, the fish and watershed advocacy organization, California Trout, last month released its report on the status of California’s native fish species.

The study includes local watersheds in the Santa Monica Mountains and cites important aspects of public works projects that affect the watersheds, like that of the Solstice Creek Bridge.

Despite its findings that great numbers of certain fish species are endangered, controversy exists over money and effort spent on such projects as the Solstice bridge.

The $1.6 million bridge crossing Solstice Creek was a public works project funded through various state agencies, with the city chipping in about $239,000. One of its redesign goals was to facilitate access to the creek for steelhead trout, thereby replenishing the fish population.

Residents of Corral Canyon had objected to the lengthy construction time of the bridge, which required narrowing access to Corral Canyon Road to one lane. Many believed this impeded access by firefighters to battle the Corral Fire last November.

“We fought against the bridge and the City Council ignored us,” Corral Canyon resident Bob Bailey said. “They spent over a million dollars to protect the steelhead trout, but they couldn’t come up with the money to patrol the area where the fire started.”

Other Malibu area projects to help restore steelhead trout include a study to remove the Rindge Dam, located several miles up Malibu Creek. Estimates on the cost of the study were originally $2 million but increased last year to a projected $3.6 million. The study, conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is for the purpose of examining the Malibu Creek ecosystem and includes assessing the pros and cons of taking down Rindge Dam and removing the sediment, which would open almost six miles of prime breeding habitat for the Southern California steelhead.

Estimates of the dam’s removal have been as high as $40 million, an amount, some say that could be better spent elsewhere such as on education. The study is expected to be completed by the summer of 2009.

Nevertheless, wildlife agencies and groups like CalTrout insist that studied management of watersheds through a combination of public and private agencies and funding is vital to maintaining fish populations and the viability of their habitats.

According to CalTrout’s report, 65 percent of native salmon, steelhead and trout species that are found only in California will be extinct within the century, if present trends continue. Of the state’s nine living native inland fish, 78 percent of their populations are in danger of extinction.

Dr. Peter Moyle is a professor of fisheries biology at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and author of the report, “SOS: California’s Native Fish Crisis.” He says that the problem is due not to over-fishing, but to inadequate watershed management.

“The Southern California coast puts huge pressure on the watersheds because of a growing human population and its demand for water,” Moyle said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “Virtually all the watersheds are dammed and, if they’re badly designed, the fish cannot surmount them. So they don’t spawn and the population deteriorates.”

Steelhead trout, which can grow to 20 pounds or more, can swim hundreds of thousands of miles away in the ocean. But they always return every year to spawn in the same river where they were born, remembering the “taste” of their birthplace. Commercial salmon hatcheries depend on fish returning to the same place every year for their harvests.

“Properly designed dams have a sort of staircase that the trout climb by jumping,” Moyle said. “But if the water flow is severely reduced by diverted flow, they don’t know where to spawn.”

(The Rindge Dam study is also taking into consideration such a ladder system; however, low water flow in the creek might negate such a step.)

That is not the only way their numbers are decimated. Moyle said some fish are programmed to survive a season deprived of water flow because of drought.

“It’s a neat system that allows them to adapt,” Moyle said. “But we are in competition with the fish for water. We take most of it and leave the rest polluted.”

Moyle said that governmental agencies, like the California Fish and Wildlife Department, are struggling with over-burdened budgets as it is, so local advocacy groups are picking up the slack through innovative “Living Streams” programs that work to clean riparian areas and restore streams to health.

“There’s a whole network of watershed advocacy groups and they can be very effective at getting grants and pushing legislative agencies to protect the waterways,” Moyle said.

Scott Feierabend, director of CalTrout, said the goal of their report is to bring education and awareness to public attention.

“We will be briefing key members of the Legislature on existing regulations and statutes that need to be enforced,” Feierabend said. “The staff and the Department of Fish and Game have a lot of creative ideas to help deal with the crisis, but they don’t have the fiscal capacity. They need more staff and authority to strengthen and revitalize their efforts.”

Feierabend likens the state fish populations to “the canary in the coal mine.”

“These fish are the barometers of the health of the water we drink and shower in,” he said. “As part of the ecosystem they tell us where the rest of us are headed.”

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