Science Spotlight

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  • October 30, 2019

Image of a healthy steelhead trout being measured and surveyed in 2017.
A healthy steelhead trout surveyed at Pescadero Creek Lagoon Complex in 2017

Dozens of dead steelhead trout are pictured following a turbulent wintertime breach of the lagoon in 2014.
The aftermath of a winter sandbar breach 2014. These nearly annual breaches resulted in large die-offs for the lagoon’s steelhead.

Wide shot of a manual sandbar breach between the lagoon and ocean. Scientists manually breach the lagoon to prevent fish deaths caused by the nearly annual wintertime sandbar breaches.
A manual breach of Pescadero Creek Lagoon Complex. Managed breaches of the lagoon can prevent fish kills caused by turbulent natural breaches. Photo Courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

There’s a dichotomy in the way Pescadero Creek Lagoon Complex in coastal San Mateo County has both supported—and been detrimental to—steelhead trout for much of the past 25 years.

On one hand, the lagoon complex—the largest tidal marsh between Elkhorn Slough and the San Francisco Bay estuary—boasts high growth rates for Central California Coast Steelhead. The lagoon system allows the species, which is federally listed as endangered, to reach a size that increases their likelihood of surviving at sea. Steelhead also use the system for juvenile rearing and resting during migration.

On the other hand, nearly every year since the mid-1990s, the lagoon faced harsh fall/winter sandbar breaches that filled the system with oxygen-depleted water and spread toxic sediment produced by the breakdown of organic matter like plant material in the absence of oxygen.

These breaches often resulted in large die-offs for the lagoon’s steelhead population. Historically, population estimates have reached as many as 17,000 steelhead rearing into the fall.

“It was a one-two punch where fish faced lack of oxygen and got hit with harsh toxic compounds. It was really unfortunate because the lagoon system works so well to grow steelhead, but we were losing the production every year,” said District Fisheries Biologist Jon Jankovitz.

Efforts to actively manage breaches began in 2012, but were stalled in 2014 and 2015 when the steelhead population was diminished due to drought conditions. In 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) partnered with the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which owns much of the land associated with the complex, in adopting a monitoring and management plan.

In 2016, a significant fish kill caused by a turbulent sandbar breach prompted further action. CDFW, NOAA and DPR resumed active management to improve water conditions and prevent the deadly breaches.

The restoration team installed a sandbar dam at a major channel to slow the release of oxygen-depleted water and sediment into the system. Staff also preemptively manually breached the lagoon mouth on occasions when they anticipated a harmful natural breach.

Jankovitz conducts weekly water quality monitoring and twice-monthly dry-season fish sampling to inform management decisions. He produces an annual report on the health of the steelhead population and a summary of seasonal water quality transitions.

So how has active management faired? There hasn’t been a significant fish kill since 2016.

“We’ve saved the steelhead population for the last couple of years. We’re fortunate for the success we’ve had so far,” said Jankovitz.

Another mark of success has been the documented presence this year of sexually mature holdovers, meaning steelhead that were reared in the lagoon for two seasons even though they were large enough to smolt (i.e. migrate to sea).

“This obviously couldn’t happen if there was a fish kill the year prior. These holdovers represent a life history strategy that may fill in gaps during down reproductive years or periods of poor ocean conditions,” said Jankovitz.

There’s a long-term restoration plan in the works which would likely involve structural changes, such as relocating culverts and breaching levees, to alter the dynamics of how much tide flows in and out of the system. The plan includes a sediment removal project that was implemented in 2019 to increase fish passage.

Ultimately, CDFW and DPR would like to keep the system thriving without active management. “We don’t love breaching the lagoon manually because it can be stressful for fish and other aquatic species,” Jankovitz said.

Meanwhile, fostering an environment in Pescadero Creek Lagoon Complex that supports a large population of fast-growing steelhead continues to be top priority.

“Aside from being a native California species with a long history of recreational and angler use, steelhead are a great biological indicator of the health of streams and lagoon systems. The ecology of these systems would likely fall apart without them,” Jankovitz said.

Photos courtesy of CDFW District Fisheries Biologist Jon Jankovitz and the Bodega Marine Lab at University of California, Davis. Top Photo: District Fisheries Biologist Jon Jankovitz with a healthy Pescadero juvenile steelhead.

Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958

Categories: General
  • September 11, 2019

Black and white image of a man crouched in front of truck, holding a large fish in one hand and measuring stick in other hand. Man is wearing plaid collared shirt and pants.
Faded black and white photos are all that’s left of the Owens River Gorge’s glory days as a trophy brown trout fishery. Biologists expect the fish to make a comeback following near-annual pulse flows that begin in September to improve habitat.

Sepia colored image of young man and older man sitting behind table covered in nearly 100 fish. A sign in front reads Harry Smith, 23 years 1953 74 browns, from the owens river gorge, limit 25 trout per day.

Two men in waders standing in river. One man has a large machine backpack on and holds a long, yellow stick in the water. Other man holds a net. Rocks and rough river in background.
CDFW crews electrofish the Owens River Gorge two times per year to assess the health of the river’s brown trout.

From boom to bust to decades of angler indifference, few California fisheries have experienced such wild swings of fortune as Mono County’s Owens River Gorge.

The latest chapter in the long saga of the Gorge unfolds this month when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) sends a relatively brief burst of water known as a “Channel Maintenance Flow” down the 10-mile stretch of river between the Upper Gorge Power Plant and Pleasant Valley Reservoir to benefit fish habitat.

From Sept. 9 to Sept. 17, water flows will rise from the relatively placid 35 to 55 cubic feet per second (cfs) typical in the Gorge to 680 cfs before gradually ramping back down. link opens in new tab or windowAccess to the Gorge will be closed by LADWP during the nine-day “pulse flow” event for public safety.

The temporary boost in water flow represents the successful resolution of decades of legal battles involving LADWP, Mono County and CDFW. The high flows are expected to breathe new life into the Owens River Gorge ecosystem and its once-storied brown trout fishery. Court settlements mandate the pulse flows continue almost annually -- 18 out of every 20 years.

The flows are intended to replicate seasonal scouring that occurred naturally in the Gorge long before dams, power plants and water diversions were constructed in the last century. In fact, these alterations dried up the Owens River Gorge from 1953 to 1991 until years of litigation restored some minimal flows and attempts to restart a once-fabled brown trout fishery.

The Owens River Gorge is paradoxical – so close yet so far away. Just northwest of Bishop and within sight of Highway 395, it is difficult to access with limited and steep trails to reach its waters 500 to 900 feet below the rim. Since water returned to the Owens River Gorge in 1991, it has been more popular with hikers and rock climbers than trout anglers.

It was a much different story prior to the construction of the Long Valley Dam in 1941, which created Crowley Lake, and the subsequent addition of a number of power plants along the stretch of river. Before then, the Owens River Gorge was a destination brown trout fishery with a worldwide reputation. So good was the fishing it was one of the few waters in California with limits based on weight – 25 pounds plus one fish per angler per day.

CDFW Environmental Scientist Nick Buckmaster is based in Bishop and conducts twice-yearly electrofishing surveys in the Gorge along with macroinvertebrate sampling.
“Right now, the fish populations are pretty stunted,” Buckmaster said. “We just don’t have large brown trout in the Gorge anymore.”"

The Gorge is home almost exclusively to wild brown trout and the populations are high. Buckmaster estimates between 1,500 to 5,000 trout per mile, numbers that compare favorably to many blue-ribbon trout fisheries in the state.

“The problem is they are all small. Their growth really slows down around 5 inches, and most of the fish in the Gorge are less than 8-inches long. Their growth really plateaus,” he said. “By the time they get to 8 inches, they are geriatric fish.”

Buckmaster explained that brown trout undergo an important life change once they reach between 8 and 14 inches in size. They mostly stop eating aquatic insects and transition into apex predators, preying on other fish and just about anything else of substance they can eat. The diet change leads to rapid growth and turns them into a prize for any trout angler skilled enough to catch them.

Plateauing at 5 inches, however, most of the brown trout in the Owens River Gorge never reach that important developmental milestone or achieve it only toward the end of their lives.

“If you want big brown trout, they need something to eat,” Buckmaster said. “And they usually need a lot of something to eat.”

CDFW fisheries biologists expect the pulse flows to provide just that by dramatically altering the ecosystem. The big burst of water will scour pools and restore the deep-water holding and ambush habitat needed by large brown trout. The flows will flush out years of accumulated sediment, exposing gravel beds critical for trout breeding while fostering a broader diversity of aquatic life than what’s present in the Gorge today.

Mayflies and stoneflies are largely absent from the ecosystem, and caddisflies – safely encased and underneath rocks in their larval stages – provide a limited food source. Small populations of native Owens suckers exist in the Gorge. Their numbers are expected to grow with an increase in aquatic insect life following the pulse flows, incidentally providing important forage for growing brown trout.

The high waters will inundate and benefit riverside riparian growth, offering shade and cover and additional insect habitat. The flows also are expected to flush out invasive  New Zealand mud snails that have infested the Gorge over time. The snails provide little benefit to fish and are a source of competition for other macroinvertebrate life.

Buckmaster said biologists could see positive changes in the Gorge as quickly as three months after the flows. And bigger brown trout could start turning up in Buckmaster’s electrofishing surveys – and at the end of anglers’ lines – as early as next year.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW scientific aids Christi Kruse and Emma Hewitt identify some of the macroinvertebrate life taken from the Owens River Gorge.

Categories: General
  • May 9, 2019

Closeup of man holding up fishLahontan cutthroat trout are a Crowley prize. In addition to natural spawning that occurs in the lake, CDFW plants the fish as fingerlings in the fall. By the spring opener, many like this fish are resplendent in their spawning colors.

Man in brown and beige CDFW uniform on boat bent over cooler with fish while holding a ruler in cooler. Jim Erdman conducts creel surveys to see how many trout CDFW planted last fall turn up on opening day. Fish 15 inches or longer are determined to be from last fall's stocking when they were planted as fingerlings.

Man in white t shirt, sunglasses and ball cap on beach in front of body of water holding up a fish with spots. Mark Risco from Temecula shows off the 20-inch brown trout he caught opening day at Crowley Lake. In addition to natural spawning, CDFW's Hot Creek Hatchery stocks thousands of brown trout each year, which are very popular with Crowley anglers.

Man wearing CDFW uniform, sunglasses, and green ball cap standing in dirt parking lot holding clipboard.CDFW volunteer Carl Ronk conducted opening day creel surveys at Crowley Lake along with CDFW Environmental Scientist Jim Erdman.

Mono County’s Crowley Lake is a destination fishery that attracts trout anglers of all kinds – bait fishermen, lure casters, trollers and fly anglers – throughout the state during its open season.

The sprawling lake, situated at 6,700 feet and covering some 5,300 surface acres in the Eastern Sierra, also represents a huge investment for CDFW. The nearby Hot Creek Trout Hatchery raises hundreds of thousands of rainbow, brown and Lahontan cutthroat trout for Crowley each year that provide the backbone of the quality angling experience. Many of the fish are stocked as fingerlings in the late summer or fall and grow rapidly in the invertebrate-rich environment. Some go on to spawn in the lake’s many feeder creeks and supply wild progeny to the population.

All of which helps explain why CDFW Environmental Scientist Jim Erdman has been out conducting creel surveys at Crowley every opening day since joining CDFW in 2005. Based in Bishop, Erdman’s goal is to contact at least 300 anglers and see which hatchery fish are turning up in their catch, in what numbers, in what proportion of species, and in what condition. The report is an annual check to see whether CDFW’s management plan for Crowley remains on point or whether adjustments need to be considered. The opening day creel surveys have been taking place since 1997 when CDFW biologist Curtis Milliron wrote the Crowley Lake Management Plan.

CDFW volunteer Carl Ronk assisted Erdman this past opener April 27. The two split up at times – one checking anglers along the shoreline, the other awaiting returning boats to the Crowley Lake Fish Camp marina, the only formal boat launch at the lake.

Their tools for the day included a clipboard for note-taking and a 15-inch wooden “Crowley Stick” for measuring fish. CDFW biologists have determined that a fingerling trout stocked in the fall should be 15 inches or greater by opening day in the nutrient-rich waters. Erdman typically completes and submits his report by the afternoon of the opener and shares it with anyone interested. Local papers have been known to reprint it in its entirety.

For the 2019 Crowley opener, the creel survey found shoreline angler success was greatly improved from the previous year with an average catch per angler of 3.66 trout compared to last year’s average of just 0.71 trout. Overall, however, catch rates and total catch per angler were lower than 2018. Fish size was also down. Approximately 41.4 percent of the rainbow trout measured were greater than 15 inches, well below the annual average of around 70 percent. The catch rate fell below CDFW’s management goal of one fish per angler for each hour of effort.

A long, cold winter and late ice-out were cited as factors in a slower-than usual Crowley opener and smaller fish with less time to fatten up post ice-out.

“Crowley Lake did not ice-out until April 10, 2019, and this kept fish in deeper water than usual,” Erdman wrote. “No fish were seen in the McGee, Crooked or Whiskey Creek inlets and few to no fish were seen staging for a spawning run. Water temperatures in the inlets remained below 40 degrees.”

Rainbow trout made up the majority of the catch followed by brown trout. Lahontan cutthroats were scarce. CDFW annually stocks 100,000 Lahontan cutthroat fingerlings in the fall. Cutthroats represented just 0.9 percent of the shoreline catch and 1.6 percent of the boating catch compared to 2018 findings of 11.3 percent of the shoreline catch and 2.2 percent of the boating catch.

Opening day on Crowley Lake, with its big crowds and festive atmosphere, has always been about more than bag limits as reflected in Erdman’s creel survey report.

“Returning boat anglers were a bit slower than usual coming in off the lake probably due to the pleasant conditions on the lake. Relaxing in the sun and drifting in the slight breeze. A grand day to be on the water.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW's creel surveys play an important role in evaluating the lake's management and stocking allocations.

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Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

 

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • April 2, 2019

The latest issue of California Fish and Game, Vol. 105, Issue 1 (PDF), focuses on marine species, bringing new insights and understanding of several fish species found off the California coast.

In A very long term tag recovery of a California scorpionfish (Scorpaena guttata) (PDF), Roberts and Hanan report the remarkable recovery of a tagged scorpionfish that had been at liberty far longer than any previously recaptured scorpionfish. The recovery was made during a four-year mark-recapture study on nearshore groundfish off southern and central California. More than 32,000 fish were recaptured, with an average of 408.8 days at liberty. The study results indicate that scorpionfish demonstrate strong site fidelity, given that a majority of the fish were recaptured within 5k of their original tagging site. The scorpionfish that is the subject of the article was tagged in 2004. It had been at liberty for nearly 14 years (5,048 days). After removing the tag, the fisherman who captured the fish reported that he released it “unharmed and looking very healthy.”

Another paper reports on a method for estimating the age of roosterfish using dorsal fin spines (PDF). According to authors Chavez-Arellano et. al, the roosterfish is considered a prized species by the sport fishing community and provides a significant economic benefit to the Mexican tourism industry. However, little is known about its biology, ecology, and movement patterns. The authors embarked upon a study to assess which sections of roosterfish dorsal fin spines have the most legible indicators of growth for use in future aging studies. Their work provides the initial basis from which future aging studies can be conducted.

Finally,Primary and secondary nursery areas for leopard and brown smoothhound sharks in San Francisco Bay, California (PDF), summarizes a 31-year study to determine primary and secondary nursery habitats for leopard and brown smoothhound sharks within South San Francisco Bay, adding new knowledge to the biology of both species.

As it has for the past 105 years, California Fish and Game continues to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife. We look forward to witnessing the contributions of the next installment.

CDFW Photo.
Media Contact:
Lorna Bernard, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8911  

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal
  • January 18, 2019

Four men and large fishing nets on small fishing boat on water. Marina and levy in background.
Joe Millosovich, an environmental scientist who specializes in lake and fisheries management in the Central Valley, came all the way from Fresno to captain one of the electrofishing boats collecting bass in the Delta Jan. 16. Several of CDFW’s biologists participating in the outing called it one of their favorite days of the year.

Man wearing gray camo foul weather gear, backward ball cap, and black life vest with yellow reflectors behind helm on fishing boat on water. Cloudy skies and grass-covered levy in background
Max Fish, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Inland Fisheries Program, captained the electrofishing boat that collected the largest largemouth bass of the morning – a 10-pound-plus whopper.

Man wearing blue foul weather gear, blue ball cap, on docked fishing boat holding up two large fish. Water, land, and trees in background.
Kyle Murphy, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW’s Inland Fisheries Program, shows off two of the larger Delta largemouth bass headed for the International Sportsmen’s Exposition demonstration tank in Sacramento.

Among the more popular attractions at the Sacramento International Sportsmen’s Expo each January is the Western Bass Aquarium Demo Tank. The 6,000-gallon aquarium displays dozens of trophy largemouth bass collected by CDFW biologists from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The aquarium demo tank, with bleachers on both sides, is where professional bass anglers lead seminars demonstrating the latest techniques and can’t-miss lures – all without hooks attached so as not to injure the fish.

“This is the best display of largemouth bass anywhere in the country,” said Kent Brown, the longtime host of the ISE demonstration tank. “And that’s not just me talking. That’s from tournament bass fishermen who travel all over the country. There’s just no bass anywhere that can rival these Delta bass.”

The tank is also a tremendous source of pride for the CDFW fisheries biologists tasked with collecting the fish.

“It’s great for people to see the kind of fish they can catch here in their own backyard,” says Ben Ewing, a CDFW district fisheries biologist who headed the ISE collection effort this year. “All the fish get released back into the Delta immediately after the show and literally are available for anyone with a fishing license to catch.”

A mix of 16 fisheries biologists and volunteers assembled along the Delta near Stockton the morning of Jan. 16, the day before the opening of the four-day ISE show at Sacramento’s Cal Expo. They climbed onto four electrofishing boats to probe likely largemouth hideouts – tule stands, rip-rap shoreline, sunken boats, submerged tree limbs and other structure.

“We all come together to try and make a good display for the public,” Ewing said.

Over the years, a friendly competition has developed. A trophy and bragging rights go to the CDFW boat captain who collects the largest bass for the show. Each of the four captains took off with their crews in different directions searching for a largemouth bass that might not only win the day but one that might top their all-time ISE show record fish of more than 13 pounds.

The boats sent targeted currents of electricity through the water while crew members standing on the bow were ready with nets to scoop up the stunned fish for deposit into the live wells for safekeeping. In more than 20 years of providing Delta largemouth bass for the Sacramento ISE show, CDFW biologists have refined their methods and strategies.

In addition to looking for the largest fish, a mix of sizes is collected. Smaller bass add perspective in the tank and make the biggest fish look even bigger. Suckers, catfish and large sunfish add some fun diversity to the display. Striped bass are a no-go – they don’t do so well in transport and they’ve been known to jump out of the aquarium.

Max Fish, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Inland Fisheries Program, piloted one of the electrofishing boats. He explained how these vessels are important research tools that allows CDFW scientists to survey fish populations and assess health in the state’s lakes and reservoirs. CDFW puts one of the boats on display at the ISE show each year and points out the connection between the boat and the bass in the tank.

On that overcast January morning with major winter storms looming in the forecast, Fish sent 340 volts of electric current through the shallow Delta waters. The conditions for electrofishing were nearly ideal – the plentiful organic material in the Delta helps conduct electricity while the overcast skies were unlikely to spook fish and send them deep beyond the boat’s effective reach.

Fish said the boat’s electric current ranges about 10 feet deep and about 20 feet wide – roughly the span between the two sets of anodes extending from the boat’s bow into the water.

Fish’s efforts were rewarded with the largest bass of the day – a 10.3-pound lunker among others in the 9- and 8-pound class. After congratulations, photos and good-natured ribbing from his colleagues back at the dock, the 60 or so fish collected by all the boats were shuttled directly to Sacramento’s ISE show in an aerated live well.

Meeting them there was CDFW veterinarian and fish pathologist Keven Kwak, who tested and treated the aquarium’s water to make sure it was safe for what would be the fish’s short, but celebrated stay in Sacramento.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW biologists stand ready with nets in hand to scoop up temporarily stunned fish for the ISE’s bass fishing demonstration tank in Sacramento. Biologists look for the biggest and best specimens to showcase the Delta fishery. While the biologists are targeting largemouth bass primarily, the electric current brings up carp, catfish, suckers, striped bass and all manner of sunfish. Within a minute or two, the stunned fish come to and swim off.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General