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Giving up the Ghost...almost

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
February 3, 2000


At times, I am just a plane ticket away from throwing in the towel. Not being one who is encumbered by property or children, at any time I am free to leave San Diego in search of greener pastures. Considering that green pastures no longer exist in Coastal Southern California, finding "greener" pastures would not be difficult. If things continue on their current course, sooner or later, we will all be environmental refugees.

It is often said that extinction is forever, but until that moment there is always hope. Case in point is the recent discovery of a local species of fish that was thought to be extinct for at least 50 years. The species of which I speak is the anadromous oncorhynchus mykiss, also known as the southern steelhead trout. Native to Californian rivers from Santa Maria to the Mexican American Border, this species has all but disappeared from fresh water courses south of Malibu Creek in northern Los Angeles county.

Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, and the National Marine Fisheries Service have declared steelheads to be presently in danger of extinction, due to "widespread degradation, destruction, and blockage of freshwater habitats within the region, and the potential results of continuing habitat destruction and water allocation problems." Because the Marine Fisheries Service has yet to admit that steelhead exist in San Diego County, it does honor any struggling populations with protection under the Endangered Species Act.

If in fact steelhead no longer existed in local waters this would be a non-issue, but considering that a small population was discovered last year in Camp Pendleton's San Mateo Creek, being recognized by governmental agencies is incredibly vital to that population's continued existence. According to the 1996 status review of west coast steelhead, coauthored by the National Marine Fisheries, the bureaucracy that won't acknowledge the existence of southern steelhead, "in years of substantial rainfall, spawning steelhead can be found as far south as the Santa Margarita River." Perhaps if the Santa Margarita River was restored to a fraction of it's former self, steelhead would also return there as well.

If ever there was a reason to hope, this discovery of a few fish is it. Thought to be history, unlike many other species, this one has actually managed to retain a tenuous grasp on survival, despite all the machinations of humans. Now I know I am usually the king of doom and gloom, but let it be said I know a positive thing when I see it. Better yet, if it is a remote possibility to pull the California condor from the brink, why not steelhead trout, the California gnatcatcher, fairy shrimp, and the Quino checkerspot butterfly?

This is why I refuse to move to Cuba. I believe that if enough Californians decide that native animals are worth saving then it can be done. I also believe that if those of us who have been fighting the good fight were to concede defeat, it would be that much easier for the bulldozer boys to finish developing the little open space that remains. Perhaps this is why the local steelhead population is being ignored, if agencies actually acknowledged the presence of this critically endangered species, they would then have to adopt measures to protect them and their diminishing habitat.

Imagine the legacy we could leave future generations of Californians if we were to harness all the energy that we put into destroying the environment, and redirected to the effort of restoring it. If you ask me, that task is more daunting than putting men on the moon, and twice as rewarding. Not only will it prove the measure of our ingenuity, it will also evidence our capacity for compassion.

But where to start? I suggest the first thing on our agenda is to let the responsible agency know this species matters. To do this the Southern California office of the National Marine Fisheries Service should be flooded with phone calls and letters. I would also encourage letter writers to forward a copy of all correspondence to their congressional representative. It also wouldn't hurt if local elected officials were asked to chime in. If we are to save steelhead trout from extinction, Californians have to mount a concentrated effort on their behalf. Anything short of that, would be too little, too late. Not only do we owe this endeavor to our children, but to ourselves as well. Saving this local species from immediate extinction is the test of a lifetime. Personally, I think we're up to it.

National Marine Fisheries Service
Southwest Region
Protected Species Management Division
501 W. Ocean Blvd., Suite 4200, Long Beach, CA 90802-4213
(562) 980-4000

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