The Southern California Steelhead
Once thriving in the Santa Clara River, Ventura River, and numerous Southern California coastal watersheds, anthropogenic impacts including impassible fish barriers, toxic discharges of pollutants, invasive specie introductions, water withdrawals, and land developments have pushed the Southern California Steelhead to the brink of extinction and have resulted in their listing as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The Santa Clara River alone experienced returning steelhead runs of 8,000 steelhead per year to it tributaries before the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam was constructed, which effectively combined a barrier to 99% of steelhead spawning grounds on the Santa Clara River with toxic discharges of pollutants into the Santa Clara River and its Estuary from sewage effluent, stormwater runoff, industrial discharges, and irrigation runoff.
As a resource whose continued thriving existence is vital to the preservation of Chumash Culture, and the culture of many coastal communities, Wishtoyo is dedicated to ensuring its recovery. (Click Here for info on Steelhead & Chumash Culture)
VCK’s Steelhead Restoration Projects Currently Include:
The Steelhead Recovery Plan - Click here
The Vern Freeman Diversion Dam Fish Passage - Click here
The Water Quality and Health of the Santa Clara River and its Estuary - Click here
Wishtoyo’s and its VCK Program’s overarching campaign on the Santa Clara River and Ventura River to protect and restore the Steelhead focuses on 1.) Advocating for and assisting with providing fish passage around fish barriers obstructing adult steelhead migration to spawning grounds and juvenile migration to estuaries and the ocean; 2.) Improving water quality in critical adult spawning and juvenile rearing habitats; 3.) Ensuring the adequate mimicking of natural flow regimes required for Steelhead survival and recovery; 4.) Removing invasive species that threaten steelhead and their habitat.
Steelhead History & Endangered Species Act Listing (from Steelhead Recovery Plan)
The Southern California Steelhead (“Isha’kowoch” – Chumash Native American name) are the anadromous, or ocean-going, form of the species Oncorhynchus mykiss and are one of seven Pacific salmon native to the west coast of North America. Historically, steelhead were the only abundant salmon species that naturally occurred within the coastal mountain ranges of southern California. Adult steelhead enter the rivers and streams draining these ranges during the winter months to migrate upstream to spawning and rearing habitats when storms produce sufficient runoff to breach sandbars formed at the mouths of the rivers. Likewise, juvenile steelhead holding in estuaries and in rivers, make their way into the ocean during these rain events to continue growing into mature adults.
The ocean-going fish were sought out by the Chumash People and later recreational anglers during the winter and the juveniles during the spring and summer fishing seasons. With a dramatic rise in human population after World War II, land and water development within coastal drainages led to the sharp decline of steelhead populations in many watersheds, leaving only sporadic and remnant populations. While the steelhead populations declined sharply, most coastal watersheds retained populations of the non-anadromous form of the species (commonly known as rainbow trout), with many populations trapped behind dams and other impassible barriers.
After the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducted a comprehensive status review of all west coast steelhead populations, the Southern California Steelhead was formally listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act on August 18, 1997, and as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) in 2006. This listed species encompasses all naturally spawned steelhead between the Santa Maria River and the U.S.-Mexico Border, and includes only those O. mykiss whose freshwater habitat occurs below impassible barriers, artificial or natural, that exhibit an anadromous life history. Those fish from above impassible barriers that are able to emigrate into waters below the barrier and exhibit anadromous life-histories are also protected as part of the DPS.