Restoring Southern California Steelhead A Team Effort

A 24-inch steelhead from Maria Ygnacio Creek in Santa Barbara County. A rare sight this far south in California. Back in the day, anglers were catching steelhead in the heart of Los Angeles, including near the modern-day site of Dodger Stadium around the turn of the 20th century and in places like the Ventura River. (MARK CAPELLI)

The following appears in the May issue of California Sportsman:

By Joanna Gilkeson 

Similar to the famous steelhead runs of the Pacific Northwest, tens of thousands of these silvery fish once graced the streams and rivers of Southern California.

Historic records reveal abundant numbers of steelhead once migrated from the Pacific to Southern California’s coastal waterways in search of spawning grounds. Their presence is memorialized in places like Steelhead Park, which sits along the Los Angeles River near Dodger Stadium. In the early 1900s, anglers came here in hopes of filling their creel with the formidable fish. 

Images from the early 20th century also portray successful steelhead fishing in Orange County at San Juan Creek, and in San Diego County in lower San Mateo Creek and lower Santa Margarita River. 

Today, steelhead are nearly nonexistent in Southern California – a strikingly different picture than the one painted by historic accounts. 

“Southern California steelhead are the most endangered of all steelhead in California,” says Mark Capelli, Southern California Steelhead Recovery Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the primary agency responsible for management of this endangered species, and the resident expert. 

But he also believes that bringing them back is possible. 

Steelhead were once a big part of the Southern California fishing scene as they remain today along the northern coastal areas of the state. And while these days steelies are hard to find along the Southland’s rivers, creeks and streams, several agencies and conservationists continue to fight to bring back some semblance of the past. (USFWS/MARK CAPELLI)


The Southern California steelhead population began to decline in the late-1940s due mainly to man-made landscape modifications. Migration routes to spawning grounds were increasingly blocked by dams and channelized for flood control. Rivers were modified for recreation and more and more water was diverted to satisfy an exploding human population.

The romantic stories of steelhead fishing here faded as quietly as the fish disappeared from coastal streams. California steelhead populations from the Santa Maria River in Santa Barbara County to Malibu Creek in Los Angeles County were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1997, mainly due to widespread habitat loss and fragmentation.

Steelhead populations south of Malibu Creek were not included in the listing at that time due to a lack of recent observations of steelhead in the area. But forthcoming surveys and observations made clear that small numbers of steelhead continued to occupy Southern California’s coastal streams in an attempt to migrate. 

In 2002, the endangered Southern California’s steelhead range was extended from Malibu Creek to the U.S./Mexico border. Today, fewer than 500 steelhead return to Southern California coastal watersheds to spawn, yet Capelli is optimistic about the species’ future.

“Recovery of a species in such a densely populated area is one of the most ambitious recovery efforts ever undertaken, but the fish’s natural resilience provides reason for hope. This fish has evolved under the diverse, sometimes hostile, conditions of Southern California, and has continued to occupy these watersheds for millennium; they are an integral part of the ecology, and an important part the region’s natural heritage,” Capelli said.

The construction of fish passages to allow steelhead to get around barriers like this area of San Juan Creek in the city of San Juan Capistrano is among many projects to help restore runs of sea-run trout. (JOANNA GILKESON/USFWS)


Clark Winchell, conservation partnerships program division chief and steelhead recovery lead biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern California, knows recovery is a long game and operates under the motto, “If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get there.”

In Winchell’s view, “Restoring steelhead to Southern California will be a long-term effort, probably 50 to 60 years before coastal watersheds are ready to support the steelhead again. This is just the beginning.” 

The longevity and scope of this project is due in part to the mere geographic expanse of habitat needed to support migrating steelhead, and the complex waterworld of California. Steelhead rely on connected waters for migration; the route from coast to spawning grounds can be anywhere from 3 to 90 miles, depending on the watershed.

Recovery of this magnitude requires patience, diligence, and optimism. Luckily for the steelhead, Capelli and Winchell, and a host of scientists, anglers, tribes and agencies, have united under the banner of the South Coast Steelhead Coalition to recover the species.

But years before the coalition came to fruition, a man named George Sutherland was championing the cause.


Sutherland, a trout enthusiast and angler from Idaho, moved to California in the mid-1980s. Sutherland proceeded to found the South Coast Chapter of Trout Unlimited near his home in Orange County.

Over the years, he helped kickstart a slew of local Trout Unlimited chapters in California and elsewhere, including San Diego, Sacramento, the Feather River, the Smith River, and two in Idaho. 

He’s investigated Southern California steelhead by reading historic accounts, initiating conversations with locals about the historic presence of this fish, and searching for evidence of steelhead in coastal tributaries. His passion and knowledge would be key to the coalition, but he didn’t know it yet. 

“I wanted to learn more about trout and steelhead, so I ran an ad in a San Clemente newspaper. It read, ‘Help Needed: Looking for Information on History of Steelhead in San Mateo Creek,’” Sutherland said.

“A man named John Waters called me. He was a steelhead fisherman and showed me old photos of steelhead in San Mateo. It was really unbelievable and I knew I was right about steelhead in Southern California.” 

This isn’t the only anecdote Sutherland has collected about steelhead in the Southland. Many people have approached him, eager to share memories of early relatives fishing for the stock. This was the beginning of an unlikely conservation movement in an unlikely setting.

Biologist Clark Winchell of the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region and Dr. Sandi Jacobson, a geneticist, survey the Santa Margarita River, one of four watersheds being prioritized by the Fisheries Service’s Recovery Plan for Southern California steelhead. “Each watershed has high potential for restoration, and comes with its own set of logistical challenges,” Jacobson says. (CAROLYN LIEBERMAN/USFWS)


Building on a foundation of knowledge collected by Sutherland and others, CalTrout founded the South Coast Steelhead Coalition in the early 2000s, with support from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The coalition was off to a good start but after a loss of funding, its future looked uncertain. 

In 2012, the coalition found its second wind when CalTrout received another grant from the state wildlife agency and eventually hired a new coordinator for the coalition, Dr. Sandi Jacobson, a geneticist and an avid fly fisher of 35 years.

The culmination of these moments and individuals led to a defining moment for steelhead recovery; it was a reenergized, community-centered coalition aiming to help steelhead reclaim historic migratory routes in Southern California.

Jacobson’s drive for success is contagious, and she is as positive as she is clear about the coalition’s goals. 

“We are implementing the Fisheries Service’s Recovery Plan, and their steelhead expert, Mark Capelli, provides insight as an active member of the coalition. We are committed to improving habitat and stream connectivity for steelhead. An effort of this scale takes time and people, and this group is filled with great people who are working to make a difference,” she said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2012 Southern California Steelhead Recovery Plan is foundational to the coalition’s strategy. It provides a description of the species’ biology, a watershed-by-watershed habitat assessment of threats to the species and a set of recovery actions to address threats. 

Capelli, the main author, says it also sets forth a strategy for monitoring the status of steelhead and recovery actions, as well as a research program to increase the understanding of the species’ ecology in the region

“The coalition is focused on the four watersheds prioritized by the Fisheries Service’s Recovery Plan for Southern California steelhead: San Juan Creek, San Mateo Creek, Santa Margarita and the San Luis Rey. Each watershed has high potential for restoration, and comes with its own set of logistical challenges,” Jacobson said. 

Trabuco Creek, despite flowing a lot of urban Orange County, also has a lot of flow in protected Angeles National Forest before it converges with San Juan Creek. “San Juan and Trabuco have high potential to once again becoming habitable for migratory fish,” Winchell says. (JOANNA GILKESON/USFWS)


“Steelhead require multiple migration routes to reach spawning grounds,” Winchell said. “In Southern California there’s always the uncertainty of drought, and that’s one of the reasons we need to restore several watersheds simultaneously.”

“In the past, if one watershed didn’t have enough rainfall, the steelhead had other options along the coast. If we want them to recover, they will need access to at least a couple spawning areas.”

The coalition has made progress in each of the four watersheds, with San Juan Creek leading the pack – from the coast to the divergence of San Juan and Trabuco Creeks, the lower reaches of this watershed meander through concrete and flow adjacent to busy roads and prime real estate in coastal Orange County. Beyond the divergence, Trabuco Creek is constrained by channelization and is home to two large fish barriers. Yet the upper portion of the watershed remains relatively pristine, even in the midst of the second most populous county in California.

“San Juan and Trabuco have high potential to once again becoming habitable for migratory fish. This is mainly because the headwaters of these creeks are within the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest and have remained somewhat protected and untouched, which is unusual as most watersheds in California are highly modified,” Winchell said. “We have a head start here, so reconnecting this watershed is one of our top focuses.”

“Another reason for the priority of this watershed is due to what Sutherland calls the highlight of his career. In 2007, we found an expired male steelhead at the mouth of San Juan Creek, a mile or so up from the coast. It confirmed everything I had heard about steelhead in the area, and that this watershed can support steelhead. They want to use it, and we need to help them reach the headwaters.”

However, there are a few small barriers to entry before the upper watershed is fully connected once again. From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, Orange County constructed a series of small dams in the San Juan Creek watershed, within the Cleveland National Forest. Designed to retain water in summer for recreational swimming and fish stocking, they have not been maintained for years and impede fish from swimming upstream.

Kirsten Winter is a Forest Service biologist. Over the years, she’s thought a lot about these dams and their impact on the complex forest ecosystem.

“The life expectancy of these small dams is 50 years, and most of the dams in Trabuco Creek are well beyond their life expectancy. They may fail during times of high water, and cause unplanned releases of sediment or other damage to the forest. We have determined that these structures must be removed to allow for fish passage and to restore stream health.” 

In 2009, Cleveland NF embarked on a major fish passage project, with two major objectives: The first is replacement of concrete ford crossings with bridges to allow for unimpeded fish passage. The second is removal of 80 rock and mortar dams from Silverado, Holy Jim, Trabuco and San Juan Creeks. The long-term goal of these fish passage projects is restoration of connectivity in Trabuco and San Juan Creeks for steelhead. This fish passage project is also a priority by the coalition and the recovery plan. “Removing the barriers will allow the creek to reestablish its natural flow, benefiting the overall ecological integrity of the forest and creating the right conditions for steelhead migration in the future,” Winter said. 

“In addition coalition members, the Federal Highways Administration, Orange County Parks, Caltrans, and the U.S. Marine Corps made this project possible.” 

Winter emphasizes, “Large-scale ecosystem restoration is made possible by quality collaboration.”

Since 2014, 18 mortar dams in San Juan Creek watershed tributaries have been removed, restoring 2 miles of steelhead habitat.

Relics of the past like these happy Ventura River estuary steelhead anglers from 1909 is enough motivation for the government agencies, conservationists and steelhead lovers. “If we keep at this, we’ll get it done,” George Sutherland (below) says, “and it will make Southern California an even better and more beautiful place to live.” (MARK CAPELLI/GEORGE SUTHERLAND)


Winter said the removal has already made a difference. “Since the removal of these dams, we’ve noticed substantial improvements in the health of Trabuco and Holy Jim Creeks,” she said. “About 60 dams still need to be removed, and these are targeted for removal over the next two to three years.”

Reconnecting the steelhead migration route within the national forest is the first step in fish recovery, but in order to reconnect 20 miles of stream from coast to headwaters, two significant barriers near Interstate 5, in the urban epicenter of Orange County, stand in the way.

According to Jacobson, habitat restoration in this heavily trafficked area is crucial to complete watershed connectivity, and it’s a complicated and costly effort that members of the coalition are currently working towards.. 

“There are two large bridges supported by concrete foundations where Interstate 5 and a railroad line cross the Trabuco Creek, about 5 miles up the coast,” Jacobson said, “and the bridges’ concrete foundations create completely impassable conditions for migrating fish. We’re working with partners, including Orange County, City of San Juan Capistrano and Caltrans to design a steelhead passage structure under both bridges. Once this project is complete, steelhead will have access to 15 miles of upstream habitat. This is about promoting resiliency in coastal areas through an ecosystem-level approach.”

The coalition believes that bringing steelhead back to Southern California is about more than the steelhead themselves. “These projects chart a path to integrate natural processes into managed landscapes,” said Jacobson, who adds that, “They create resource management solutions that support wildlife, secure water supply and enhance flood protection. This approach demonstrates that endangered species are not an inevitable consequence of development but that ecology and urban infrastructure can coexist.” 

In the same vein, Sutherland offered one final thought: “Recovery actions for steelhead will bring positive impacts to coastal towns and residents. If we keep at this, we’ll get it done, and it will make Southern California an even better and more beautiful place to live.” CS

Editor’s note: Joanna Gilkeson is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist for the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office, which gave permission to run this report. For more, go to 

Sidebar: Q&A With A Steelhead Restoration Biologist
Biologist Clark Winchell (left, with conservationist George Sutherland) says it’s important to be realistic but also optimistic that steelhead can successfully migrate to Southern California watersheds. “We’re not idealistic and trying to get things back to where they were,” he says. “But we’re hopeful that we can do some restoration to enhance the entire area.” (JOANNA GILKESON/USFWS)
By Chris Cocoles

Restoring steelhead in a region made famous by Disneyland and Hollywood will take more and longer than a Screen Writers Guild miracle ending. 

“We’re not trying to get back to where it was. It would be virtually impossible to restore our estuaries and watersheds to that stage,” says biologist Clark Winchell, conservation partnerships program division chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the point man for the steelhead project. “It’s how we can adapt them in their current state to hopefully get to the ultimate goal of recovering steelhead.”

“I’ll be dead before they’re flowing up here (again),” he adds.

But that hasn’t stopped Winchell from working tirelessly on this project. We caught up with him recently for more background on this arduous task. 

Chris Cocoles Can you provide a little perspective on how steelhead used to be common running through Southern California rivers and streams?

Clark Winchell Going back to World War II and prior, steelheading down here was fairly common. People relied on them both for food and recreational purposes. Most likely they were never as abundant or robust as in Northern California. Our populations had always been smaller, just because our watersheds are smaller. Less water means less area for fish.

CC I grew up in the Bay Area and Northern California but also lived in Southern California, so I’ve always figured the southern part of the state wasn’t an ideal habitat for steelhead. But I would be wrong about that. Was it a great habitat back then?

CW Absolutely. When the coastal railroad systems were placed in here along with Highway 1 – prior to (Interstate 5’s construction) – we had a lot of filling in our lagoons and estuaries, which constricted the mouths, and that caused the estuaries to close off. And you couple that with development inland, which increased sedimentation into our watersheds, now you’ve totally altered the hydrology in the system. And these mouths began to close off and the spawning areas became more and more limited. But 100 years ago, these were very open, different areas. 

If you go up into Holy Jim (Creek), which is one of the areas that were important for steelhead up until World War II, that area had all been taken over by fig trees that were planted up there.  And they’re actually choking out the watershed there. So our watersheds have drastically changed.  

CC So do you think there’s a hope for a resurgence and rebirth for these fish?

CW I think there’s hope; if there wasn’t hope, then why would we be doing this? We’re not idealistic and trying to get things back to where they were. But we’re hopeful that we can do some restoration to enhance the entire area. And by doing that we say that also has benefits to us in Southern California’s urbanized areas. Those benefits could be for better watershed management, recharging of our aquifers, less erosion, opening up our estuary and lagoon mouths for more circulation. 

CC Are there any specific creeks or rivers that are showing signs of hope of being restored with fish coming back?

CW I’m going to preface this with, depending on who you ask you might get a different answer. Mine would be the San Juan (Orange County) and San Mateo (border of Orange and San Diego Counties) Creeks. The San Mateo has very high potential because most of the San Mateo watershed resides within federal property in the Cleveland National Forest and Camp Pendleton (U.S. Marine Corps base). And Camp Pendleton does a tremendous job of managing their groundwater and its water resources, and in working with their federal partners, primarily USGS, to eliminate and eradicate invasive species such as bass and catfish and crayfish and bullfrogs. They’ve been doing stellar work for protection. 

San Juan is an altered watershed, no question about it; you go through the city of San Clemente and the development that’s been there. You do have issues of urban runoff and sheet erosion. But you also get into the Cleveland National Forest, which has been doing a lot of good work there, primarily in replacing stream crossings and removing fish barriers. And in the upper watershed what they are starting to do is restore the proper hydrological flow. And what that’s going to do is stabilize the stream bank and recreate your ponding and pooling situations that these fish look for. 

CC You were quoted in the story as saying this project will be 50- or 60-year time frame before these watersheds will be able to fully support steelhead. How important is the next generation to be involved once your work is done? 

CW And I think that’s where the (South Coast Steelhead Coalition) and partnerships and getting the word out for some common goals (are critical). In essence, it’s institutionalizing this. CalTrout and Trout Unlimited have placed a tremendous amount of effort in the last three years down here, and (Dr.) Sandi Jacobson’s led that. Those are the types of efforts we need. And I think the coalition really represents positive partnerships among fly casting clubs, NGOs, the Audobon Society and some of the preserve landholdings down here like Star Ranch (in Orange County’s Trabuco County). Water in Southern California is controversial, so I think you need to approach the situation more as a collaborative effort. 

CC What’s a dream scenario for you over say the next 25 years in terms of where we’re at by then?

CW In 25 years it would be nice to see one or two of these watersheds in a position where we’re having healthy water flow through it; where we have high public involvement and we’ve created a few areas upstream where the fish can spawn and mature until they go out into the ocean. And I think that’s feasible. CS