California's Trout Recovery Effort Criticized

April 27, 2010 By: Marshall Cutchin

California’s transportation agency is planning to spend $935,000 to pave over part of a popular beach to build a “fish freeway.” The project is the most recent attempt by government agencies to allow steelhead to spawn in southern California streams.
In July of 1999, state and wildlife officials celebrated when a tiny population of fish were found in Upper San Antonio Creek for the first time in 44 years. A fragment of these fish were eventually stranded in a golf course pond on their way back to the sea, causing environmentalists to wonder if state officials were being diligent enough in their efforts to protect them. “It’s something we just made a mistake on. It’s horrible,” said Mauricio Cardenas, fisheries biologist for the state Fish and Game department.
In the following years, California spent millions on concrete fish ladders, cameras, fishways and other contraptions to help steelhead reach their historical spawning grounds.
In February of 2008 state officials were given a glimmer of hope as 3 adult steelhead were spotted by underwater cameras climbing the Robles fish ladder on the Ventura River. The first such sighting in two years. Still, many of the state’s residents have begun to question if all of these efforts have done anything except absorb taxpayer dollars. “If we do a series of crappy projects like fish ladders to nowhere … then the public trust for giving money for these types of projects is going to go away,” said conservationist Mark Abramson of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation.
When southern California’s steelhead were listed as endangered in 1997, only an estimated 500 adults were left from Mexico to Santa Barbara. Currently, wildlife officials have no concrete evidence that populations are increasing, circumstantial evidence suggests that their efforts are indeed working.
Said Mark Capelli, the steelhead recovery coordinator with the fisheries service, “We have a complicated situation we’re dealing with and I don’t think we’ve ever taken a position that there’s only one way. There may be circumstances where artificial methods are appropriate and necessary.”