Biologists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are poised to launch a major fish rescue operation early next week for the rainbow trout in Jameson Reservoir, which has dropped to precariously low levels. Jameson is one of the key water supplies for the Montecito Water District. Because the trout in the reservoir are effectively landlocked behind two dams, they are not technically regarded as steelhead trout, a federally endangered species. Steelhead are defined by a life cycle that takes them out to the ocean and back up their creeks of origin.
Despite such legal technicalities, the trout in Jameson are genetically identical to steelhead trout and are considered extremely valuable because their populations have not mixed at all with trout introduced via human intervention. Biologists will capture the trout using traditional catch-and-release methods and will truck any caught fish to hatcheries near Fillmore. Water levels in the reservoir have dropped to 20 feet; typically Jameson is 80 feet deep. As the lake gets shallower, water temperatures rise; at a certain point, the trout can no longer survive.
According to one federal report, there are no more than 500 adult steelhead between the Santa Maria River and the Mexican border. According to a new five-year assessment by the National Marine Fisheries Service, steelhead populations remain critically low, but progress made on freshwater habitat restoration and on removing fish barriers will give remnant populations a better chance at waging a comeback once rains resume.