Many people have asked why the Carmel River Steelhead Association works so hard to protect steelhead. There are many reasons for protecting steelhead including legal, environmental, genetics, issues associated with global warming, economics and personal. Discussion of these reasons is below.
LEGAL: In 1997 the United States government listed steelhead as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since 1997 the listing has been reaffirmed once and a recovery plan has been issued with the Carmel River listed as the most important river for steelhead in the South Central Coast Area.
With the listing of steelhead as threatened, both public and private organizations as well as individuals have a big club over their heads because of the “take” provisions of the ESA. The Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law states the following about “take”:
“Under §9(a)(1), no one, public or private, can “take” an endangered species of fish or wildlife. “Take” has been broadly defined to include “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect.” Furthermore, FWS has declared that “harm” includes “significant habitat modification or degradation.” Thus, the habitat as well as the endangered animal is protected from private action. This interpretation was controversial, but was upheld in Babbitt v. Sweet Home – 515 U.S. 687 (1995).”
Anyone, either public or private, now must consider steelhead in anything they do on or to the river and obtain a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). That permit usually includes an “incidental take” clause allowing for the “take” of a specific number of the listed species and if you take more than what is allowed on your permit you will be subject to fines at best. Worse yet would be “take” without an incidental “take” permit.
We have been told that National Marine Fisheries Service which regulates steelhead, is now considering changing the listing to Endangered. If this happens the level of protection and the requirements for protection go up yet another level.
We all will be under the ESA until NMFS determines the run on the Carmel River is 4,000 fish annually. Considering that between 1993 and 2015 the average run on the Carmel River was believed to be only 765 fish per year we have a long way to go. Without the effort to save steelhead, everyone will be under that big club for a long time.
ENVIROMENTAL: Steelhead are considered an indicator species; in other words, steelhead indicate the overall condition of the river they are in. Both steelhead and the Carmel River need help. When you help either steelhead or the river you help both and therefore all plant and animal species dependent on a healthy river. Would it not be wonderful to see healthy and varied streamside vegetation? Would it not be wonderful to have a summer swimming hole in the lower river rather that a dry river bed? Would it not be wonderful to view songbirds in a riparian habitat in summer? Protect steelhead and all are possible.
GENETICS: At the end of the last ice age the west coast of North America began thawing from south to north, with steelhead moving north with the thaw. Since the rivers in our area have run longer than the rivers further north, they have had steelhead in them longer and therefore have the most diverse genetics of all steelhead. Most scientists believe the more diverse genetics the better the species will be able to cope with changes and the better for overall survival. It is our steelhead that could be the best to cope with the changes expected to occur.
GLOBAL WARMING: Global warming is now considered to be a fact. One may argue as to the cause but it is happening. Steelhead are a cold water species and as the earth warms so will the rivers. Just as the southern rivers started running first after the last ice age, the southern rivers will warm first causing them to potentially become uninhabitable for steelhead.
Steelhead in the southern rivers have adapted over time to warming rivers, but the rate of warming was so gradual that the steelhead could adapt. With global warming it is feared that the warming will be so fast that many species including steelhead will not be able to adapt. With our steelhead already able to survive in warmer waters than steelhead in British Columbia, it is our Carmel River steelhead that may migrate north to populate northern rivers.
ECONOMIC: The run of steelhead on the Carmel River once numbered close to 20,000 fish. Some of us can still remember runs numbering close to 10,000 fish. The Carmel River was once considered a prime sport fishing river. Many people would come to the Carmel River to fish for the best sport fish in the world. This was an economic boon to local businesses which has been lost with the decline of our steelhead. The Mad River near Eureka in northern California is fighting to keep its steelhead fishery alive and well, with one of the most compelling reasons being economic. Many residents of the Monterey Peninsula travel to northern California each year to fish for steelhead. Not only is that money leaving Monterey County, we no longer have people from other areas coming to our area to fish. They go to northern California and elsewhere.
PERSONAL: Steelhead are a magnificent fish. It always amazes us that a fish not an inch long swimming up from a gravel nursery can survive in a degraded river for one to three years, then go to sea for two to three years and come back possibly as big as fifteen to twenty pounds. Every year we have people asking when and where they can see a steelhead. Anyone who has seen these majestic fish wants to see one again. Together we can make it possible for future generations to see steelhead in the Carmel River. Please help the Carmel River Steelhead Association make this possible.