By Daryl Kelley
After a federal agency failed to launch a rescue effort last month, at least 54 juvenile steelhead trout died in dry pools in the upper Ventura River near the $9-million Robles fish ladder, which was ordered built by the U.S. government to help save the endangered fish from extinction.
“It’s frustrating to do all this work, and then just stand by,” said marine biologist Scott Lewis, who works as a consultant for Casitas Municipal Water District, which built and operates the Robles ladder.
Lewis, who monitors the steelhead for Casitas, had been warning the National Marine Fisheries Service of potential fish deaths for weeks before he messaged July 20 about the result of inaction:
“Over the weekend, the entrance pool at the Robles facility went completely dry and 54 juvenile steelhead mortalities were discovered,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “We have bagged and labeled the steelhead and they are in our freezer (for testing).”
Chris Yates, who oversees the southern steelhead program from a National Marine Fisheries office in Long Beach, said his agency and state Fish and Game are trying to craft a fish-rescue policy, but it hasn’t been completed.
“The question of rescuing fish is a complex one,” Yates said. “The question is when and how and where do you do it? What are your criteria? That’s the process we’re going through right now.”
With very few resources, public agencies can’t spend much time rescuing fish in streams that have naturally dried up for hundreds or thousands of years, he said. His agency must focus on the cause of the drying, and if that cause is man-made, trying to lessen man’s impact on the natural process.
“We do feel there are times and places and reasons when fish should be rescued,” he said. “However, we have to balance that. In Southern California, it’s very difficult to distinguish between what is natural or the result of human activities.”
As for the recent Robles steelhead deaths, Yates said his agency had been talking with Casitas about what to do, and the fish died before a decision was made.
“We were evaluating the information to try to figure out ways to preserve those fish in the location where they were,” he said. “And we have very little ability to focus on fish rescue operations.”
He has just three or four employees focusing on steelhead issues for a region stretching from San Luis Obispo County to the Mexican border, he said.
“The bottom line is I am not inclined to build a broad, widespread fish rescue team,” Yates said. “It is a Band-Aid that does not address the critical actions that are needed to move this fish toward recovery.”
What to do about steelhead trout as they become trapped in pools as rivers dry up in the late spring or summer has been an issue for years.
Last year, the federal fisheries service gave Casitas temporary approval to collect several steelhead trout trapped in drying water holes and move them toward the ocean, where the river has water year-round. It is illegal to move the endangered fish without a permit, and violators are subject to fine.
National Marine Fisheries then promised to develop a protocol for rescuing the trout. But as summer arrived this year, that protocol still had not received final approval, said Steve Wickstrum, general manager for Casitas.
The protocol may not have saved the fish anyway, he said.
“They have their own game plan,” Wickstrum said. “They’re not in the position of developing a rescue team.”
As for Casitas, which is under federal mandate to help the steelhead survive, the situation is perplexing, Wickstrum said.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” he said. “We do a lot of facility building, and now you get the fish in this situation. … We cannot save the trout. We do not have a permit to handle them.”
Paul Jenkin, coordinator of the Matilija Coalition, which is attempting to restore the watershed to its natural state, said failure to save the 54 steelhead is not acceptable. Rescues should take place because fish are being trapped by man-made conditions, including over-pumping of groundwater along the Ventura River.
“It’s extremely frustrating that the public agencies are not being more pro-active on this issue,” he said. “(Fish rescues) ought to be the most basic thing we can do for this species. The first step toward recovery should be mitigating this impact.”
Jenkin said that “when you have 50 to 100 juvenile steelhead die each year, that’s significant mortality in a river that has perhaps a couple of hundred total.”
Lewis, the Casitas consultant, said the count of juvenile steelhead was way up this year in the Ventura River, and that perhaps 1,000 may live there now.
Over one 100-yard stretch where Casitas counts juvenile steelhead, his team saw 130 during a one-day session this year, compared with 13 last year, Lewis said.
Lewis said he can tell young steelhead trout from their rainbow cousins, which are not endangered, because the young smolt turns silvery in color and becomes skinny as it heads toward the ocean.
Even as the 54 steelhead were allowed to die recently, Casitas and other local agencies were responding to increased fishing on the Ventura River by posting “No Fishing” signs, and warning of fines. At least one fisherman has been cited.