Thursday, May 1, 2008
As president of the Carmel River Steelhead Association, local dentist Roy Thomas is familiar with steelheads’ troubles: poaching, pollution, sedimentation, habitat loss. The big one is low river flow, which can be brought on by drought, excessive well pumping and illegal river diversions.
So far this season, 412 steelhead have made it past the San Clemente Dam, according to Kevan Urquhart, a senior fisheries biologist with the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. That’s about average since 1990, he says.
The number of steelhead who have made it over the Los Padres Dam, farther up the watershed, is at an encouraging 158 this season—the fifth-highest tally since 1992, beating an average of 122 over that time period.
That’s good news for embattled Central Coast steelhead, which are federally listed as threatened. Thomas credits the uptick to years of restoration work on the Carmel River Lagoon, and efforts to rescue juveniles trapped in shallow waters.
But the fish’s seasonal success could be short-lived. This year’s sparse rain could make life hard for young steelhead, who live in fresh water for one to two years, swim to the ocean, and then return to the river to spawn a year or two later. If today’s fry don’t do well, Thomas says, fewer adults will return in two to three years.
“It’s cheerful that there are some [steelhead] there, but if the habitat conditions don’t improve it’s just a flash in the pan,” he says. “You have to have a reliable and safe place to lay your eggs and grow up before you can have predictable, large returns.”
Thomas’ passion for steelhead advocacy borders on the defensive. “These don’t have big brown eyes and fur,” he says. “When you’re cold and slimy and scaly, you’ve got to find people that appreciate you, because no one else will do it.”