Talk about water traps. A school of endangered steelhead trout has become stranded at a stream on a local golf course, and wildlife experts are on alert to evacuate them if the water dries up.
The trout at the Soule Park course have been adopted by golfers, who stop their carts and peer into the shallow waters of San Antonio Creek. Biologists are not sure how many of the rarely sighted fish are stuck in the stream, because they hide under a concrete slab. At least six fish, up to 18 inches long, have been counted.
"This is a really important find. It tells us steelhead are still using the lower Ventura River and probably have for some time, but we just never caught on," said Mauricio Cardenas, fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
The plight of the fish is the latest chapter in the saga of the elusive steelhead, once thought to be all but extinct in Southern California, but suddenly showing up this year in coastal streams from Santa Maria to San Diego.
Since January, hundreds of steelhead have been confirmed in San Mateo Creek near San Diego, four creeks in Santa Barbara County and now San Antonio Creek 13 miles north of Ventura. Streams swollen by El Nino storms last year probably enabled more steelhead to swim upstream only to be cut off on the return trip to the ocean as summer heat dried up the water, experts say.
The trapped fish, which thrive in local lore but struggle in nature, are delighting researchers who welcome their arrival as an opportunity to learn more about the animal, an endangered species.
Old-timers share stories and pictures of big steelhead caught in the Ventura River and its tributaries in the 1930s, but the fish haven't been seen by scientists in San Antonio Creek for 44 years, Cardenas said. Water diversions, pollution, invasive species and dam building account for their demise.
A golfer notified state wildlife officials last month about big trout in a kiddie-pool sized stretch of water at the golf course. The fish consume minnows and dart in and out of a small waterfall.
They are a special attraction for the golfers, who stop on a bridge to look at them. "Hey, are there any trout down there? Are they very big?" a man in a straw hat shouted Tuesday, pointing into the stream.
Golf course officials worried that if word of the fish got out poachers might steal the fish. Stream-fishing is illegal year-round on the lower Ventura River and its tributaries. Anyone caught bothering an endangered species faces up to $100,000 in fines and a year in jail.
A steelhead is an ocean-going rainbow trout. When they enter freshwater streams to spawn, they lose their trademark silvery sheen and develop a dark rainbow coloration for better camouflage in the mountains.
Cardenas said these fish are much too big to be resident rainbow trout and tests on other stranded steelhead showing up in the same circumstances in Southern California streams confirm the fish are steelhead.
"Those fish didn't come out of that creek system," said Mike Fergus, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "They came from the ocean. They look very similar to rainbow trout, but they are steelhead. It's been a good year for steelhead returning to oddball places."
For the moment the fish appear to be in good shape, biologists say. They have plenty of food and cover. Although surface flows have largely dried up, cool ground water pushed above the creek bed provides a continuous, although modest, flow for the fish at the golf course. They can't swim upstream because there isn't enough water and they can't swim downstream to the ocean because the water is too warm, Cardenas said.
"They're stranded and just waiting for winter when there's more water," Cardenas said.
Biologists are constantly measuring stream conditions. Soon, they will install sensors to monitor the pool around the clock from computer terminals in their offices. There are no plans to remove the fish, yet.
"The smartest thing to do is leave those fish there," said Jim Edmondson, conservation director for California Trout Inc. "These fish have adapted to these conditions through thousands of generations. For us to tinker with them and move them from one place to another when there are so few of them makes no sense."
But time is working against the steelhead. A relatively dry winter and punishing summer heat is beginning to dry up San Antonio Creek and other streams. Even before that happens, the remaining water will heat up and become intolerable for the fish, scientists say. If that occurs, steelhead salvage teams that are now on standby plan to move in and relocate the fish.
"It's worth it, even if we can salvage only a few fish," Cardenas said.
Where will they go? Scientists don't want to dump steelhead in the ocean because their bodies won't be able to undergo physiological changes to equip them for life in saltwater. They don't want to put the fish above Matilija Dam near Ojai, where 17 miles of prime steelhead habitat is, because the fish could wash over the dam and become imprisoned in Lake Casitas.
A likely destination would be Sespe Creek, a wild and scenic river in the Topatopa Mountains that features some of the best trout habitat in the region. Or, they could be moved to a stream in Santa Barbara County, where they could swim back to the ocean.
Steelhead are already stranded in Mission, Rattlesnake, Gaviota and Arroyo Hondo creeks in that county, Cardenas said.
Saving the steelhead has recently become a front-burner issue for local governments and environmentalists. Since January, there has been growing support for tearing down Matilija Dam, which blocks steelhead access to spawning grounds in the Los Padres National Forest. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is studying how to disassemble the dam.
The Casitas Municipal Water District is spending $340,000 for a report showing how to design and build a fish ladder at Robles Diversion Dam, which blocks steelhead access to the north fork of Matilija Creek.
Another fish ladder destroyed in 1969 is being repaired on a small dam on Santa Paula Creek, the first major tributary on the Santa Clara River, Edmondson said. And steelhead have been spotted at the Freeman Diversion Dam this spring, although one adult fish got stuck there and died.