The science and data are clear. Southern California steelhead are on the brink of extinction. Southern steelhead populations have been decimated at the southern end of their native range, plummeting from tens of thousands to a few hundred remaining adults due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation from urbanization.
On April 21, an important milestone was achieved to prevent the irreversible loss of this iconic Southern California fish species. The California Fish and Game Commission unanimously voted that the state ESA listing of Southern steelhead may be warranted. This decision means that further action will be taken on CalTrout’s petition to list Southern California steelhead as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
“Based on the science and based on the law, it is very clearcut for me, and certainly I find that for the Southern California steelhead, listing may be warranted,” stated Director Samantha Murray during the California Fish and Game Commission meeting.
This unanimous vote in favor carries weight in that it designates Southern California steelhead as a candidate species with ESA protection during a year-long species status review by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). These ocean-going trout are thus fully protected as an endangered species during this review period. At the end of the CDFW species status review, the Commission will then decide whether the species should be listed as endangered, or whether further action is not warranted.
Despite being federally listed as endangered over 25 years ago, Southern steelhead populations have not rebounded. Only 177 adult Southern steelhead have been documented in Southern California during this time. Just like the federal Endangered Species Act listing, the request for California Endangered Species Act listing specifies Southern steelhead should be protected in all waterways within their historical range below existing barriers. Under the CESA listing, the scope and scale of watershed restoration work can be expanded to recover this species. State regulations on in-stream barriers and stream channel integrity will have meaningful impact on allowing these anadromous fish to survive and thrive.
Southern steelhead are uniquely adapted to Southern California’s warmer Mediterranean climate. As climate change continues to increase water temperatures and alter flow regimes along the entire west coast, Southern steelhead could be critical to the long-term resiliency of its northern relatives.
For more information on the CESA listing and Southern steelhead, see CalTrout’s OpEd in the San Diego Union Tribune.
Cover photo by Mark Capelli.