Drought affects Mad River steelhead

By Harrison Brooks
Flapjack Chronicle

Near the mouth of the Mad River, at a small boat launch, local Arcata fisher Joe Sykes, 21, reels in his fifth empty line of the day. He doesn’t look disappointed. Rather he’s smiling, eating a loaf of bread and talking to the other fishers as they come by in their boats.

“The only place you’re gonna find steelhead, I’ve talked to dozens of different fisherman, is up river form Hammond bridge by about two miles, and they don’t let you fish up from the bridge,” Sykes says. “They should really let you fish up by the Hatchery, but whatever.”

The California drought has had widespread effects across the state, but for fishers in Humboldt County one of the most pronounced repercussions has been the closure of local streams to fishing by the California Department Of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).  For the Mad River, which was closed off from the Hammond Bridge to Cowan Creek, the drought may pose a threat to the population of one of the North Coasts most iconic fish species, steelhead trout.

The steelhead is an anadromous fish, meaning it’s born in freshwater and swims out to sea, only returning to spawn after reaching sexual maturity. So when droughts occur, fish can either become trapped in small holes upstream, or not be able to make it up to their usual spawning areas at all.

“Stream flows in many systems are inadequate to allow passage of spawning adults, increasing their vulnerability to mortality from predation, physiological stress and angling,” according to a release from the CDFW.

For steelhead though, being unable to migrate upstream to where they normally spawn isn’t the only problem the fish would run into. If water levels remain low through summer waters where fish spawn could heat up more easily to temperatures lethal to eggs and juvenile fish.

“If we don’t get some substantial precipitation to boost flows, it’s going to be really rough in the summer,” says Darren Ward, a fisheries biologist at HSU. Ward explains that temperatures of just 16 C (Roughly 60 F) can kill fish eggs.

But not all the issues affecting  the Mad are simply environmental. In recent years, more political factors have  had an affect on steelhead.

The Mad River Hatchery, located in Blue Lake, was sued in 2013 by environmental group EPIC over various concerns that the Hatchery was harming endangered fish like the Coho, Chinook, as well as the local wild steelhead still in the river.

As a result, the hatchery has currently suspended operations. This will mean fewer steelhead being added to the population so that the fish already in the water are on their own for reproducing this season.

The primary source of steelhead for fishing in the river is the the Hatchery, which usually cultivates and releases juvenile fish each season for recreational fishing.

If the drought keeps up, along with the current suspension of fisheries activities, this may mean a reduction in the Mad’s steelhead population over the next few years, Ward says.

Recent storms have brought much needed rain to the rivers, boosting their stream flows and freeing up trapped fish. However, with last year as California’s driest on record, this is by no means a time to stop conserving water.

“The rain right now is good,” says Ward, looking out a rain-battered window. “Let’s just hope it keeps up.”

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