Of Concrete, Steelheads and Swallows: Anglers Fight to Bring Back a Southern California Native

George Sutherland, of TU's South Coast Chapter, holds a southern California steelhead recently found in San Juan Creek

The bad news about southern California Steelhead: They are endangered. The good news about southern California Steelhead:  They are tenaciously persistent – which just might save them from extinction.  Despite all the obstacles in their way, the few that remain still try to reach their historical spawning grounds.

On the morning of April 17, 2012, while walking on a bike path along San Juan Creek, not far from where the creek empties into the Pacific at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, California, a man named Brad Rening found a large, dead fish and showed it to a state park supervisor, who called Trout Unlimited’s (TU’s) South Coast Chapter volunteer George Sutherland. George brought the fish to the California Department of Fish and Game, which turned the fish over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Why such a big deal over a dead fish? As you likely guessed by now, it was a southern California steelhead.

A catch of southern California steelhead, Sespe Creek, 1912

About 55,000 adult southern steelhead once annually returned to rivers and streams all along the southern California coast, and anglers were catching plenty of nice fish right up into the late 1940s.  But development, migratory barriers, water diversions, pollution and agriculture took its toll, and now the estimated number of southern steelhead is down to a few hundred.

But southern steelhead are survivors, having adapted to seasonally dry streams in the arid climate that exists in the extreme southern end of the steelhead’s range. In 2002, 40 steelhead were seen in San Mateo Creek in Orange County. A year later, state biologists spotted more steelhead in Trabuco Creek in Orange County.  In 2009, a hefty 37” steelhead was found in San Juan Creek.

“Their habitat is so compromised, particularly from drought and so many concrete barriers blocking their historic migratory passages,” says Drew Irby,  Chairman of TU’s California Council. “Yet they still come back despite all odds. All they need is a bit of help.”

Fishing for southern California steelhead, Santa Ynez River, 1942

TU’s South Coast chapter is working to increase awareness of the southern steelhead and build grassroots support to improve habitat, remove barriers, create fish passages and open up creeks where fish used to spawn. In Trabuco Creek in San Juan Capistrano, for example, fish migrating from the ocean upstream can currently go only as far as a large pool at the bottom of a concrete culvert. If passages were reopened, steelhead would have access to 13 miles of high-quality spawning habitat that reaches into the Santa Ana Mountains.

Every spring the city of San Juan Capistrano holds a week-long festival to celebrate the annual return of American cliff swallows, a migratory bird that makes a 6,000 mile journey to Argentina and back every year. “I hope someday we will also be celebrating the annual return of southern steelhead from the Pacific to their spawning grounds,” says Sam Davidson, a field director for TU California. “Like the famed Capistrano Swallows, the southern steelhead are part of our natural heritage and are indicative of clean, clear water, a healthy environment, and a great, healthy place to live – it’s time to bring them back!”

TU's California Council Chairman Drew Irby points out one of several public educational signs the South Coast Chapter helped create to increase awareness of, and support for, southern California steelhead recovery efforts.



Last January, the National Marine Fisheries Service completed a plan for returning steelhead to several counties, including San Diego, Riverside and Orange Counties.



For more information about southern California steelhead recovery efforts, click here: NMFS Recovery Plan












TU Field Director Sam Davidson and TU's California State Chairman Drew Irby at one of several barriers to southern steelhead migration on Trabuco Creek in San Juan Capistrano

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