Wildlife officials may have failed to protect a tiny population of steelhead trout, and a chance to restore the fish to waters here may have been lost.
An unusual bit of good news on the frequently bleak endangered species front surfaced this summer when a small school of southern steelhead trout was discovered in a pool at the Soule Park golf course, where they had apparently been stranded on their journey to the sea.
State and federal wildlife experts in July celebrated news of the fish, sighted in upper San Antonio Creek for the first time in 44 years, and promised to keep close watch on their welfare. Now, the apparent disappearance of one or more of the fish is causing anglers and environmentalists to question whether wildlife authorities were diligent enough in their efforts to protect them.
Three months ago, prospects looked good for the steelhead. Although golfers launched balls right over the pond, the fish had plenty of cool water and an abundant supply of minnows. But the pool is now clogged with algae, appears stagnant and is surrounded by egrets, which prey on fish. Raccoons and other predators may have taken a toll, too, though golf course personnel say they have seen no dead steelhead.
The final blow was apparently delivered by an unidentified fisherman, who left with one of the endangered fish in tow, said Don Miller, the course general manager. About 10 steelhead, some as long as 18 inches, plied the shallow pool this summer.
Late last week, no fish could be seen.
Southern California streams once teemed with steelhead, but loss of habitat over the past century reduced their numbers until the species was declared endangered in 1997.
After the recent discovery, officials with the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service said they would keep close watch over the fish, use sensors to measure stream conditions and ready steelhead salvage teams to relocate the fish if conditions threatened their survival.
But none of those things happened.
"It's something we just made a mistake on. It's horrible," said Mauricio Cardenas, fisheries biologist for the state Fish and Game department. "We don't know if the fish are gone or poached or what happened to them. This just kind of ended up on the back burner."