Federal plan to save steelhead trout could cost $560 million

dsneed@thetribunenews.comOctober 29, 2012 

It’s likely to take 80 to 100 years and cost $560 million, but by reducing man-made hazards such as dams and groundwater pumping and restoring creek habitat, federal officials hope to revive steelhead trout populations along the Central Coast.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s draft recovery plan deals with fish populations from the Pajaro River in Monterey County to Arroyo Grande Creek. The plan was the subject of a workshop Monday in San Luis Obispo.

Steelhead — which are trout that spend parts of their lives in coastal streams and the ocean — are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Biologists estimate that historically there were more than 25,000 steelhead in Central Coast creeks. Their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 500, and they are absent from about a third of the creeks they historically occupied, said Mark Capelli, steelhead recovery coordinator with NMFS and the plan’s lead author.

In San Luis Obispo County, the main man-made threats to steelhead are dams, groundwater pumping, creek channelization and agricultural development. Channelization occurs when streams are confined to unnatural waterways. 

Natural threats include drought and wildfires that can dump large amounts of sediment in creeks. In the county, steelhead are mainly found in San Simeon, Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and Pismo creeks and the Salinas River.

The main strategy for recovering these fish populations is to reduce the man-made hazards and restore creek habitat to the point that steelhead will not go extinct in the event of a prolonged drought or other natural disaster.

“We are trying to restore the ecosystem the fish naturally evolved in,” Capelli said.

Numbers of steelhead along the Central Coast would have to reach about 4,000 for the population to be considered stable, Capelli said.

Copies of the draft plan are available online at http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov. The public can comment on the plan until Dec. 18.

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