Steelhead Management in the Monterey Bay Region

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A watershed-related issue examined by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.


Steelhead present unique management challenges compared to other salmonids due to their life history plasticity. These management challenges are compounded because the Monterey Bay Region is split into two Distinct Population Segments (DPSs), the South-Central California Coast Steelhead and the Central California Coast Steelhead. A DPSs is a population of species that is discrete from other populations and reproductively isolated from other populations. [1] Steelhead in the Monterey Bay Region face difficult environmental conditions because of the unique topography of the area, and proximity to the southern limit of the species range. Both DPSs in the Monterey Bay Region are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Habitat in the Monterey Bay Region

The Monterey Bay, located on the Central Coast of California, is the centerpiece of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Steelhead in the Monterey Bay Region are of particular interest for several reasons. These fish are near the southern limit of the species range, and face environmental conditions quite distinct from Northern California populations. The Mediterranean climate of the Monterey Bay Region results in temperatures that are typically higher than those found to the north, with mild winters and productive high-flow springs supporting the highest growth rates [2]. In contrast, rainfall and stream-flow are low during the summer and fall, limiting growth rates. The small coastal streams of the Monterey Bay Region frequently feature sand-bar closed estuaries during low-flow periods that may provide ideal nursery habitat for smolts [3] [2], but also constrain potential emigration and return dates to when stream-flow is high enough to breach the sandbar [4].

Former and Current Streams

The following waterbodies are known habitats for rainbow trout. No steelhead were found during the assesment conducted in 2002, this may be due to the time of the year the sample was conducted (summer and fall). [5]

  • Arroyo Seco River
  • Willow Creek
  • Naciemento River
  • Gabilan Creek

The following waterbodies are known to have steelhead. For a more detailed list of steelhead habitat see the Habitat Recovery plans for the Central Coast and South Central Coast DPSs.

  • Carmel River [6]
  • San Lorenzo River [7]
  • Scott Creek [8]
  • Russian River [8]
  • Aptos Creek[8]
  • The Pajaro River [9]
  • Garrapata Creek [9]
  • Brixby Creek [9]
  • Little Sur River[9]
  • Big Sur River [9]
  • Willow Creek [9]
  • Salmon Creek[9]
  • San Carpoforo Creek[9]
  • Arroyo de la Cruz[9]
  • Little Pico Creek[9]
  • Pico Creek[9]
  • San Simeon Creek[9]
  • Morro Creek[9]
  • Churro Creek[9]
  • Los Osos Creek[9]
  • San Luis Obispo Creek[9]
  • Pismo Creek[9]
  • Arroyo Grande Creek[9]

Population Decline Estimates

The population size of both the South Central Coast steelhead and the Central Coast Salmon are declining. Spawning runs of the Central Coast Salmon have declined by roughly 80-90% in the past 50 years. Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag. The Central California Coast Section extends from the Russian River south to Aptos Creek, and the South Central California Coast Section extends from the Pajaro River south to just north of the Santa Maria River, effectively splitting the Monterey Bay in half.

Steelhead once had a large run up the Salinas River, today the population is facing drastically reduced population sizes. Similarly Steelhead in the Salinas Watershed are also facing population size reductions. The Salinas Watershed encompass the Salinas River as well as many tributaries within the Central Coast.

Threats to Habitat

NOAA lists many threats that the Central California Coast and South-Central California Coast are subjected to. [10] [11] Some of these threats include:

  • Artificial barries
    • Dams
    • Road crossings
    • Flood and erosion control structures
    • Pit mines
  • Streambed alterations
  • Water divresions
  • Agricultural operations
  • Water pollution
  • Introduced species

Management Challenges in the Monterey Bay Region

There are two areas designated as critical habitat for steelhead in the Monterey Bay area.[12]. The Central California Coast Section extends from the Russian River south to Aptos Creek, and the South Central California Coast Section extends from the Pajaro River south to just north of the Santa Maria River, effectively splitting the Monterey Bay in half. Since the critical area spans across multiple cities and counties, different parties need to work together to manage the species.

Conservation and Restoration Efforts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) have been working closely with the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project (MBSTP) on the restoration of Steelhead populations in the Monterey Bay Region. NMFS and MBSTP operate the Kingfisher Flat Conservation Hatchery outside Davenport, CA, in an effort to restore Steelhead populations and maintain the genetic diversity of local populations. Returning adult Steelhead are captured and spawned with both wild returning adults and with captive broodstock adults to ensure greatest possible genetic diversity. Yearlings are transported and released into rivers and streams in the Monterey Bay Region each fall.

The MBSTP also plays a large role in educating the local community about preserving salmon and steelhead populations. The group runs a Salmon and Trout Education Program (STEP). Classrooms from San Bruno to Gonzales ranging from elementary to high school are able to participate in MBSTP's program. Not only are the students educated on salmonids life cycle and habitat requirements, but the students also raise steelhead in their classroom.[13] A similar program is being conducted by the Central Coast Salmon Enhancement in the South Central Coast.

Recovery Plans

The Central California Coast steelhead recovery outline and the South-Central Coast steelhead recovery outline were released in 2007.

The plans contain a biological assessment, lists of threats, conservation assessment, and a recovery strategy. Currently there are no final recovery plans for the Central California Coast or the South-Central California steelhead populations. When the plans are finalized they will be available on the NMFS Recovery Planning website. For steelhead trout, the Southern California, Upper Columbia River and Upper Willamette River all have approved and finalized plans.



  1. Environmental Commons, Date accessed April 10th 2012
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hayes SA, Bond MH, Hanson CV, Freund EV, Smith JJ, Anderson EC, Ammann AJ, MacFarlane RB. 2008. Steelhead growth in a small central California watershed: upstream and estuarine rearing patterns. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 137:114-128.
  3. Bond MH, Hayes SA, Hanson CV, MacFarlane RB. 2008. Marine survival of steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) enhanced by a seasonally closed estuary. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 65:2242-2252.
  4. Satterthwaite WH, Beaks MP, Collins EM, Swank DR, Merz JE, Titus RG, Sogard SM, Mangel M. 2009. Steelhead life history on California's Central Coast: insights from a state-dependent model. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 138:532-548.
  5. Casagrande J, Hager J, Watson F, Angelo M. Fish Species Distribution and Habitat Quality for Selected Streams of the Salinas Wastershed; Summer/Fall 2002. Central Coast Watershed Studies. Available at
  6. Carmel River Watershed conservancy
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 2007 Federal Recovery Outline for the Distinct Population Segment of the Central California Coast Steelhead. Na2007. National Marine Fisheries Services.
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 9.13 9.14 9.15 9.16 9.17 Hunt & Associates biological Consulting Services. 2008. South-Central California Coast Steelhead Recovery Planning Area.
  12. Steelhead ESA Listings http:://
  13. Monterey Bay salmon and Trout Project



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