By Tom Walsh
President, Fisheries Resource Volunteer Corps
Repetitive comments from anglers, who have fished the East Fork of the San Gabriel River over the past five years, have indicated that there are no fish left. Based on 1,261 CDFW Angler Surveys over the past 15 years, anglers reported catching 10,901 fish. However, during the past five years only 777 fish have been caught, with only 11 being caught in the past two years.
What are the reasons for this significant decrease? Over the past five-to-12 years there are a number of events that have contributed to the loss of this fishery:
— 2005 – Twelve-year drought reduced total rainfall by 43.6 inches (3.6 inches/year) below 140-year season average.
— 2008 – Downturn in the economy brought an increase in encampments to the East Fork backcountry.
— 2008 – Price of gold hit all time high increasing from $769/oz. in 2007 to a high of $1,987/oz. in 2011.
— 2008 – Began removal of 20,000 tamarisk plants (One plant consumes up to 200 gallons of water per day)
— 2010 – California Department of Fish and Wildlife terminated fish plants on East and West forks to abide with court ruling.
— 2014 – High rain event on Aug. 3 bought significant amount of sediment downstream with large fish kill.
Of all of these events, the mining activity has been the most damaging, which has increased significantly, with the rise in gold prices, the promotion by mining guides via social media and the lack of enforcement of the mining prohibition.
The negative impacts to the stream and its riparian areas resulting from the mining activities are numerous. Large amounts of material in the stream and riparian areas are being moved to create dams, dredging holes and long diversion channels for sluicing, resulting in heavy silting, reduction in water flow and the interruption of the entire ecosystem. FRVC volunteer stream patrols have documented the loss old growth trees along the stream banks, permanent campsites within 50 to 100 feet of the stream, large amounts of equipment and trash from abandoned campsites, and the use of motorized dredging equipment.
In October 2010, the California Fish and Game Commission designated the East Fork from Heaton Flat to the headwaters as a Wild and Heritage Trout Stream. This designation includes 33.6 miles of perennial stream habitat, and is one of only 12 watersheds in the state with this designation. Unfortunately, the CDFW management plan has not been published or implemented.
This once-prominent fishery, which has been abandoned by almost everyone, needs the support of the Southern California fishing community.
By John Goraj
Myself, along with three other volunteers, began the scout at the Altadena Crest Trailhead in Altadena. We hiked for about two and a half miles on the Gabrieleno Trail along the Arroyo Seco to Gould Mesa Trail Camp, eventually turning around somewhere between Gould Mesa and Paul Little Picnic Area. The Arroyo is beautiful right now and as always, a very thriving ecosystem. We saw several California newts, who are mating right now and mountain yellow-legged frogs.
We stopped several times along the way making several notes about trout habitat and riverine conditions. We saw several things that made me confident of the existence of rainbow trout in the Arroyo. Here are some of the major habitat features that we discovered in several key habitat categories.
This central section of the stream currently possesses all of the necessary habitat requirements needed for native southern California trout to thrive; cool and clear water, stable undercut banks, clean gravel beds with little to no silt, overhanging vegetation, structural/habitat diversity and the food that trout eat.
The stream is flowing well about 5-10 cfs and the water temperature is cool. The banks along this section of the stream are undercut creating sufficient pool depth for trout to live in during the drier summer months.
Additionally, the roots of white alder trees which grow abundantly along the stream provide strong support along the banks. The gravel beds are clean and soft creating high quality habitat for trout to possibly spawn in the future. Canopy cover above the stream (overhanging vegetation) was almost always 50-to-75 percent, which keeps dissolved oxygen adequately high for native trout to thrive.
Lastly, many of the key components of trout dietary needs were present as well. These include terrestrial insects, spiders, midges, dragonflies and water boatman bugs.
Perhaps the most promising feature was the discovery of several two-to-four-foot-deep pools created by in-stream structural diversity, such as boulders and large woody debris. These pools are essential for trout survival and illustrate the important function that downed logs and boulders play in providing high quality for trout.
I will keep you all updated on the next “Trout Scout” and any possible trout sightings!
John Goraj is the Native Trout Program Manager at the Arroyo Seco Foundation.
By Rosi Dagit
She was lying on her back on the bottom of a pool, pushed by the flow against a rock. Bruised, scales falling off, scrapes all over her body, she was barely breathing. Gently holding her face into the flow, she gasped for air and hung limply in my hands. I could feel her muscles twitch and contract, but she could not swim at all. When I let her go, she sank to the bottom on her back and rolled with the flow on her side, up against my feet, unable to orient herself.
At 23 inches, she was a full-grown anadromous steelhead that had fought her way upstream against the current in search of a place to spawn. The creek was wondrous after all the winter storms, with steady flows cascading over rocks, providing a background music calling her upstream to find a good place to lay her eggs.
For several minutes we stood and discussed what to do. She was clearly not going to recover and survive, but she was not quite dead yet. It was just heartbreaking to think of losing this fish, one of only four anadromous adults known to have returned to the creeks so far this year in all of Southern California.
What went wrong? How did she get so banged up? Was the flow too strong? Was she too old and tired, having waited too many years for the rains to come?
She died in my hands. I brought her battered body back to teach us and help us learn to tell her story. Her scales will tell us her age. Her DNA will give us insight into her ancestry. She was not one of our tagged fish, but from somewhere else. Only 18 eggs, an empty stomach. The promise of the future for southern steelhead took a big loss today.
Rosi Dagit is a Senior Conservation Biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Editor’s Note: Dagit and the RCDSMM have permits to monitor and handle these endangered fish. Only permitted biologists are allowed to handle them. There is a substantial fine per fish (around $25,000) for harassment or taking one from the water, if not permitted.
In a political time, it’s once again time to get political.
If you thought that suction dredging mining was banned for good from the East Fork of the San Gabriel River outside Los Angeles, and other once-pristine California waters, think again.
You can read my coverage from 2012. I thought it was a done deal that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would be allowed to stop illegal activities even on federal lands, even within a national monument. But Pasadena Casting Club Conservation Chair John Tobin recently alerted me that, sadly, it might not be the case in the future.
As Tobin wrote in an email, “California Senate Bill 637, effective January 1, 2016, created a path for the statutory prohibition against suction dredge mining on our California streams to be lifted.”
Currently, there’s a case before the California Supreme Court challenging whether state environmental law that makes a particular mining claim on federal land commercially impractical preempted by the federal mining laws, according to the brief.
In other words, can California through its police power protect the environment, even on federal land?
For anglers, this means a choice between antiquated, destructive machinery disrupting the stream bed and scattering whatever trout may have thrived there for a largely recreational activity. Imagine trying to wet a line next to one of these contraptions. Imagine the downstream effect to the water.
You use our national lands to enjoy one of the best parts of your recreational life. Help make suction dredge mining a thing of the past.
See you on the river, Jim Burns