Pescadero Steelhead can celebrate Independence Day

Summer 2013

Federal, state, and local environmental groups recently rallied on the fog-shrouded beaches of Pescadero State Beach to liberate one of California's most iconic and protected fish trapped in a lagoon by this year's severe drought, and just in time to celebrate Independence Day.

Boat with sein pushed out into Pescadero lagoon. Photo by Jim Milbury.

Members of US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Departments of Fish and Wildlife, State Parks, Regional Water Quality Control Board, Trout Unlimited, the Carmel River Steelhead Association, the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, AmeriCorps, Native Sons of the Golden West, along with other volunteers put on their hip boots and waders and splashed into Pescadero Lagoon to save threatened steelhead.

Lagoon Harbors Dark Secret

Pescadero State Beach is one of California's most picturesque coastal settings along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway south of San Francisco. Visitors from around the world and of all ages come here to enjoy the natural beauty of the rugged coastline and celebrate the myriad of animal and plant life.

But for steelhead and other fish, this seemingly idyllic environment is far from ideal. Every year the water quality of the lagoon deteriorates, forming a depleted oxygen level or "dead zone" for marine life that often results in a steelhead fish kill. 

But this year, these steelhead faced another environmental insult to their survival. With one of the most severe droughts on record, the watershed did not receive the rainfall necessary to breach the sandbar long enough for the adult steelhead to swim to sea. This breaching is necessary for steelhead to return to the cool and saltier ocean before returning to spawn again the following season. Trapped in what would become a warm freshwater pond, researchers felt these fish would likely die if left in the lagoon over the hot summer. 

Although the drought will affect watersheds and steelhead populations in other locations of California, scientists and concerned citizens were afraid that allowing a second environmental injury to this species would just be too much for the already fragile population to withstand.

Fish are acclimated to ocean water before release. Photo by Jim Milbury.

The Ocean Solution

On June 28th, a troop of trained volunteers gathered in the parking lot of Pescadero State Beach and made preparations and plans to collect steelhead congregating at the mouth of the lagoon and transport them over the sandbar and into the ocean. Capturing steelhead and returning them to the ocean is not as easy as it sounds. It involves significant physical effort, including carrying the equipment and skiff across hundreds of yards of loose sand and deploying and recovering the net several times. But it also requires that the volunteers handling the fish understand, and adhere to, the biological needs of the fish.

Steelhead need to gradually adjust from the less salty lagoon water to the saltier and colder water of the ocean. The shock of capturing and then releasing the fish directly to the ocean could do more harm than good. So the biologists used large containers filled with water from the lagoon to place the captured fish and then gradually added ocean water to help them adjust. The containers were also outfitted with air bubblers to increase the dissolved oxygen content of the water.

While acclimating and waiting to be released back to the ocean, researchers measured the steelhead and gathered a sample of fish scales for analysis. Researchers also attached a monofilament tracking tag or FLOY tag behind the dorsal fin of the fish. A reward is typically given to fishermen who catch a tagged fish and report the information to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

Steelhead released into the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Jim Milbury.

By the end of the day and after several sweeps of the lagoon, the exhausted crew rescued, rejuvenated, and returned 54 adult steelhead to the Pacific Ocean to celebrate their own Independence Day.

Home page photo of an adult steelhead by John McMillan