Endangered steelhead trout seen in Malibu Lagoon after decades absence

An endangered steelhead trout was seen in Malibu Lagoon on May 15, 2014. It's the first-known instance of the fish in the site in decades.
An endangered steelhead trout was seen in Malibu Lagoon on May 15, 2014. It's the first-known instance of the fish in the site in decades. Jayni Shuman, RCDSMM Stream Team

A 20-inch long adult steelhead trout has been spotted in Malibu Lagoon — a sighting that some say is proof that recent restoration efforts there are paying off.

"It's an indication to us that the water quality is very good, and it just gives them some additional habitat, because they've been cut off from a lot of their habitat upstream," said Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist at California State Parks. 

 The steelhead trout is endangered and hasn't been seen in the lagoon for decades. For years the site was filled with a buildup of contaminated soil and trash, leading to lower oxygen levels in the water.

Last year, the state finished a major dredging and restoration project. It was controversial, because many worried it would harm wildlife that had taken up residence there. 

“The project had a lot of critics during its implementation, because people didn’t believe that you should use a bulldozer in a sensitive habitat. The counter to that is that when you fill in a wetland with bulldozers and let that dirt stay there for 70 years, the only way to get it out again is to use more bulldozers,” Goode said. "We feel somewhat vindicated to our critics who said that we were going to kill everything."

Newly hatched steelheads begin life in freshwater and move out to sea. Since the lagoon is a mixture of salt and freshwater, Goode says it provides an excellent transition stage for young fish. However, she said more steps are needed for the successful recovery of the species.

"The longterm success of the steelhead trout in Southern California depends on removing barriers upstream that prevent them from accessing good habitat above the barriers," she said.

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