Is re-introducing steelhead trout into the Arroyo Seco another fish tale?
|July 23, 2017 - Will the future of the Arroyo favor concrete or fish? Steve Scauzillo covers the history and prospects of native fish in the Arroyo featuring historian Tom Tomlinson and the work of the Arroyo Seco Foundation.|
Historian and fly fisherman Tom Tomlinson wants to bring Steelhead trout back to the Arroyo Seco to make the stream and its ecosystem return to its natural state. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG
By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
The list of humans who made Pasadena famous starts with the Tongva, the native people who settled near the Arroyo Seco, followed by your Eatons, Wilsons, Huntingtons, Greenes, etc.
As for the animal that put the city on the map, the answer may surprise you.
Many say that creature was the Southern California Steelhead, a salmon-like species that between 1850 and 1940, attracted fisherman from across the country to the San Gabriel, Los Angeles and Arroyo Seco rivers.
But the installation of dams and other flood control devices prevented the fish from swimming upstream to spawn, severely curtailing the population to about 500 today and landing it on the endangered species list.
The great fishing era of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains ended and was forgotten for decades — until now, as efforts to restore the fish to local rivers and streams are making headway.
Since the year 2000, historians, biologists, nonprofit groups and government agencies have focused efforts on saving the endangered fish. Scientists are studying restoration of fresh water habitats and removal of impediments that would enable a replanting in local streams, in particular, the 22-mile Arroyo Seco that winds through the Angeles National Forest, West Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge and South Pasadena until it joins the L.A. River.
“It is no minor undertaking,” began Tom Tomlinson, a fish historian and Sierra Madre resident, while standing in the Arroyo Seco beneath the concrete arches of the 134 Freeway bridge. “In fact, re-introducing steelhead trout to this watershed for that pinnacle fish would tell you that this stream has been made safe for what (19th century fisherman and naturalist) George Frederick Holder called the magnificent fish.”
The indigenous Oncorhynchus mykiss became as famous as Pasadena’s healing climate to Holder, who came to the region in 1885 to be cured of a lung ailment. After he and others, including Charles Fletcher Lummis, a journalist and preservationist whose landmark house still stands on the bank of the Arroyo Seco, wrote about the steelhead trout in national magazines, anglers from the United States and the world came west to cast their rods in the streams of what was then called the Sierra Madre Mountains.
According to fishing lore, at Switzer’s resort off Angeles Crest Highway, three fishermen caught 340 trout in a single day.
But after the glorious fishing era the fish gradually began to disappear through overfishing and concretization of the rivers, including construction of the first dam in Los Angeles County, Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco.
The mark of civilization prevented the intrepid fish from returning upstream to reproduce or swimming back down to the ocean to fatten up, dooming them to eventual extinction. Until revitalization plans began in the next century.
Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, is leading the effort to restore the Arroyo Seco and return the native trout to an upstream section above NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
His group recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to determine the best stream conditions for introducing trout.
The foundation is awaiting the final results of a 15-year ecosystem study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looking at the stream from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to the confluence with the L.A. River. One of the options includes removing miles of concrete that boxed in the Arroyo Seco and the L.A. River — done by the same entity now studying the possible removal.
Another possibility is dismantling Brown Mountain Dam, a small dam in the Arroyo Seco which was built in 1942 by the U.S. Forest Service and was rendered useless by 1947, Brick said.
At a recent forum in Pasadena about putting native fish back into the Arroyo Seco, the foundation’s theme set the tone: “Fish or Concrete — What’s the future?”
While acknowledging there will be push back on any proposal to remove concrete channel walls and check dams along the more natural, upper Arroyo Seco, moving ahead would beautify Southern California and return the region to a time when fishing in local rivers was a recreational, if not spiritual activity, enjoyed by the men who founded fishing clubs and built cabins as part of their ritual.
Scientists estimate there are 500 steelhead in the ocean, perhaps near Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, that want to swim return up the L.A. River to the Arroyo Seco but are blocked by concrete channels and dams.
“They are looking for streams to come back. Of course, it would require fixing the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco,” he said. “We believe there are rainbow trout still in the Arroyo Seco. There are a couple of dark canyons that have them.”
Fish biologists would start by taking rainbow trout grown in fisheries to the Arroyo Seco. Rainbow trout are cousins of the steelhead. Though a salmonid species, they don’t make it back to the ocean. If they did, they would undergo a transformation that turns them into steelhead trout.
Holder and sports fisherman Henry O’Melveny, who founded the prominent L.A. law firm O’Melveny & Myers, boasted about catching O. mykiss in the Arroyo Seco and the San Gabriel River. Holder, who spent time as curator of the American Museum of Natural History before coming to Pasadena in 1885, also advanced preservation efforts, such as introducing catch and release rules.
“What makes the steelhead the sine qua non of fish to adore is not only that they can spawn a number of times, but in the Southern California range, they are extraordinarily adaptable,” Tomlinson said. Some may stay in the fresh-water streams and survive. Others may live in brackish, ocean waters.
“So that would be a truncated version of what this magnificent creature could do,” he said.
When Aquatic Scientist A.J. Keith examined the conditions of the Arroyo Seco last year, he found parts of a stream choked with sediment from the 2009 Station Fire, which burned 160,577 acres above Pasadena and Sunland. Other sections were described as having “good aquatic habitat conditions” and “in relatively good condition.”
In fact, water temperatures south of Devil’s Gate were the coolest of any of the 11 other streams he studied in the L.A. basin, Keith said. Cooler waters are key to the survival of rainbow and steelhead trout.
“Can native fish survive here? Yes. Do they need our help? Yes,” he said, concluding his presentation at the forum last week.
His colleague at Stillwater Sciences in Los Angeles, Wendy Katagi, agreed that transplanting these top of the food chain fish into the Arroyo Seco was doable.
Katagi’s conclusion is partly based on a successful reintroduction of 300 arroyo chub, a much smaller native fish, into the central Arroyo Seco in 2007. They did thrive but may have been wiped out by the Station Fire, she said.
“We don’t know if the arroyo chub were able to hang on. Regardless, we are seeing great habitat and the re-introduction of native fish is definitely feasible,” she concluded.
Scientists like Katagi and Keith are buoyed by the efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which published a 560-page document, called “The Southern California Steelhead Recovery Plan,” in 2012. It lays out steps toward stream restoration and recovery of the nearly extinct fish.
Also, last year’s healthy winter rains may have helped the existing native fish population.
Brick said engineers and government agencies must find more sustainable flood control methods that include biological protections.
“With a little bit of engineering, they can engineer a way that the trout can get through Devil’s Gate Dam,” Brick said.
Other problems include lack of water in the stream. The city of Pasadena has proposed diverting more water from the upper Arroyo Seco to augment its drinking water supplies.
Agencies, such as the State Water Resources Control Board and local cities that have water rights, would have to make a choice between protecting fish and increasing water supplies.
Striking a balance is key, Brick said, even though he’d choose fish over concrete.
“We would all be a lot richer if there were fish in the Arroyo Seco. And it is good to have a goal like the steelhead,” he said.
Arroyo Seco Foundation, 570 W. Avenue 26 #450, Los Angeles, CA 90065-1011
PO Box 91622, Pasadena, CA 91109-1622 (323) 405-7326 email@example.com