Efforts to Revive Southern California’s Steelhead Fish Population and Recreational Fishing Industry

Ah, Southern California. Home of world-class sunsets, sandy shorelines, surf, and steelhead.

Wait. Steelhead?

That’s right. Up until the 1940s, many of central and southern California’s coastal rivers and streams teemed with steelhead, a magnificent and robust game fish that could reach more than 30 inches in length and snap a fishing line in a flash. The “steelies,” known for their chrome or silver color, were highly sought after by recreational sportsmen and an economic boon for many coastal communities.

Claude M. Kreider nets a steelhead in the Santa Ynez River near Santa Barbara. - circa 1942 (Courtesy Mark Capelli, NOAA Fisheries Service)
Santa Ynez River steelhead (circa 1942).

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Over thousands of years, these tough fish adapted to California’s unique environment. During wet winters they migrated from the ocean up creeks and streams to spawning grounds often miles from the river’s mouth. And during drought years they endured long, hot summers by remaining in pools of deep, cool water.

Typically, the steelhead migration would begin as soon as the first major winter storm arrived, turning a river’s trickle into a raging torrent. Newspaper accounts reported that once the water receded and steelhead were spotted going upstream, entire towns with fishing poles in hand would line the riverbanks, hoping to catch a limit that was sometimes as many as 50 fish.

But as urban development expanded across California’s coastal areas, populations of steelhead declined.  Their spawning grounds were limited or cut off by dams or roads that made fish passage difficult, if not impossible. Water that was diverted for commercial, agricultural, or residential use significantly reduced stream flows. In addition, poor water quality from urban runoff polluted streams and lagoons necessary for juvenile development.

Matilija Dam was built in 1947 on a tributary to the Ventura River south of Santa Barbara, as protection from flooding and water storage for irrigation. Unfortunately, the dam also cut off miles of spawning habitat for steelhead. After construction, the dam filled with sediment rendering it almost useless. In consultation with NOAA Fisheries Service, the Army Corps of Engineers is planning to dismantle the dam at a cost of about $150 million. (Courtesy ACOE).Matilija Dam, Ventura County, Calif.

For example, the Ventura River, just 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was once a critical migration conduit for an estimated 5,000 steelhead before the building of the Matilija Dam in 1947, the Robles water diversion dam in 1958, and a myriad of other compounding factors that have adversely affected steelhead survival and reduced the quality of their habitat. 

Today, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend about $150 million to demolish the Matilija Dam, which will open at least 10 miles of additional steelhead habitat and, in the long term, improve habitat conditions downstream and upstream of the dam. 

Operators of the Robles diversion dam have constructed a $6 million fish ladder to allow steelhead passage. These projects alone are not expected to reverse the low abundance trends, but will make significant contributions to expand the distribution for the approximately 200 adult steelhead that return each year to the Ventura River.

Steelhead caught in Sespe Creek, Calif., circa 1912, a small stream about one hour north of Los Angeles. (Courtesy Mark Capelli, NOAA Fisheries Service).
Sespe Creek, Calif., steelhead (circa 1912).

Eventually, the number of steelhead in southern and central California declined to a point where they were listed under the Endangered Species Act to prevent possible extinction. With that listing came federal protection and the responsibility for NOAA’s Fisheries Service to develop a strategy to map out a plan for their recovery.

Over the past year, NOAA’s Fisheries Service has hosted a series of public workshops along the central and southern California coast gathering information from communities such as Carlsbad, Ventura, Carmel, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa on how to recover steelhead in their unique watersheds. Plans were developed through voluntary participation with various interest groups (i.e., recreational fishing organizations, farmers, water purveyors, etc.) to provide a roadmap for steelhead recovery. They also will serve as a basis for discussion on prioritizing conservation actions and related costs among all the various stakeholders.

Steelhead may never again be as common as they once were in California’s rivers and streams. Still, there is tremendous momentum to save this once ubiquitous fish from extinction and to one day regain its status as a trophy catch by recreational fishermen and revitalize southern California’s steelhead fishing industry. NOAA logo.