Though he’s now CalTrout’s Southern California region manager, Kurt Zimmerman is a former federal prosecutor, and he clearly means business when it comes to protecting and restoring steelhead and other species.
Welcome to another in a series of interviews with CalTrout’s regional managers — the people on the front lines in the battle to protect California’s trout, steelhead and salmon. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about yourself and your region.
I’m Kurt Zimmerman and I’m California Trout’s Southern California Regional Manager. My office is located in Ventura, and I grew up in Pasadena and Sierra Madre, so I’m no stranger to Southern California.
The Southern California region stretches from Santa Maria, California to Tijuana on the California/Mexico border. It supports 2/3 of the state’s population and it’s also the home of endangered Southern California steelhead.
In my former life, I was a federal prosecutor who worked to enforce environmental laws, both in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. I was also a natural resources attorney with NOAA where I provided legal oversight for restoration projects, including steelhead and salmon restoration.
What is the most critical problem facing fish in your region?
Mostly human impacts to Southern California’s native steelhead, especially dams and water diversions. Also, our enormous consumption of water has driven the Southern California steelhead to the edge of extinction; today, only about 500 adults remain.
In the past, about 50,000 steelhead occupied Southern California’s coastal streams and rivers.
The problem is that the steelhead are in trouble, but almost nobody down here knows about them. I think that’s a big issue — simple awareness. Most residents in the region have never seen a native trout or steelhead.
Still, I’m optimistic. CalTrout is taking a leadership role in the fight to restore Southern California steelhead with projects like removal of fish passage barriers.
For example, the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam’s fish ladder on the Santa Clara River looks like something from a Rube Goldberg nightmare; it’s not the most effective fish passage technology. We’re looking at what we can do to fix that.
We also oversee or support efforts to restore fish passage in other watersheds including the Ventura River, Zams Creek, Malibu Creek, San Juan Creek, San Mateo Creek and Santa Margarita River.
I’m optimistic we can make things happen, and while I doubt we’ll see the kind of numbers we once did in my lifetime, we can bring real steelhead runs back to Southern California.
Are Southern California Steelhead any different from those found elsewhere?
Yes. One of the long-term issues we’re facing is climate change; warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns will result in increased pressure on water supplies.
The Southern California Steelhead can survive much higher temperatures than the northern fish, and with climate change coming, that tolerance will prove useful.
It would be a shame for us to lose them right now when we needed them the most.
What’s your favorite place in your region to fish?
The Southern California steelhead is an endangered species, so you can’t fish for them here.
I will say the Kern River isn’t that far from Los Angeles, and it’s a beautiful place to fish for trout..
For families looking for a fishing experience, Lake Cuyamaca — near Julian, in the mountains north of San Diego — is a pretty place, too. It’s at elevation, so they can stock it year-round with trout. The fishing is usually pretty easy, which is important when you’ve got kids.