Malibu’s steelhead habitat restoration ramps up with new money

AT MORE THAN 8,000 acres, Malibu Creek State Park includes the old “M.A.S.H.” television set and the Reagan Ranch. (Credit: Jim Burns)

Malibu’s Las Virgenes Water District was in the news last summer because of gross home watering overuse by celebrities such as Kim Kardasian, Kevin Hart and Sylvester Stallone. But in the shadow of the rich and famous of Calabasas and Lost Hills, conservationist Debbie Sharpton has quietly and insistently been preparing for the return of the endangered Southern California Steelhead, which means first ridding the watershed of persistent invasive species. 

CONSERVATIONIST Debbie Sharpton at Century Lake in Malibu Creek State Park. (Credit: Jim Burns)

One of her prime targets is the invasive red swamp crayfish, better suited to a crayfish boil in New Orleans than in Santa Monica Mountain streams, yet here they are. Sharpton’s current efforts are aimed at eradication of the crayfish, which can devastate native wildlife, including the already threatened California red-legged frog. Crayfish directly compete for resources that native Arroyo Chub, and one day steelhead, need to survive. Other invasives for Sharpton include carp, bass and catfish.

Each month, Sharpton directs removal of these small creatures through baited traps that look like funnels and simulate crayfish burrows. Once inside, a crayfish can’t escape until it is removed by gloved volunteers, it’s fate to become bait for the next round of the trap checking.

As I stand in the low-flowing waters of Tapia Creek assisting young college volunteers to check crayfish traps, I can’t see the remnants of the “M.A.S.H.” television show production set, nor the Reagan Ranch. My focused attention is on not getting my fingers snapped by wary crayfish claws. As we slowly move upstream, our Home Depot bucket is full of writhing crustaceans, along with large mouth bass fry, tiny catfish, stinging spines intact, and juvenile carp. 

“Basically, we go in teams of two, so you have the lead trapper and an assistant trapper,” Allison Linsey says.” “As the trapper, you’re the one who kind of makes the decisions, you decide when traps need to be replaced or taken out. You’re also responsible for entering all the data we collect.”

The traps dot much of the riparian areas of Malibu Creek State Park. Stream areas are divided up into sections, with each section’s traps checked at least every three days. That puts these teams in the water for several shifts per week. 

INSIDE Malibu Creek State Park, a trapping team gets ready to move into another section. (Credit: Debbie Sharpton)

“We start around 8:30 in the morning,” says another volunteer, Amanda Chi.” Then maybe we would end around noon. At first, it was surreal to because it’s my first time doing fieldwork. But just being in the river early in the morning. It was really beautiful.”

Volunteers also include fly-fishers who are committed to conservation. Tools of the trade on any given day might be a fly rod for “catch and take” fishing, seine netting, which forms a barrier across a stream and scoops up its inhabitants (not as easy as it sounds …), and those crayfish traps. 

Financial and technical support for the project comes from California State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Service, Santa Monica Mountains.

While this slow work may seem akin to David battling Goliath, further south the San Diego Regional Water Board may significantly up the ante in the fight to rid California streams of invasive pests. If passed into law this spring, invasive species would join mercury, lead and other toxics under Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act. The plan would enable collaborative watershed planning and restoration activities to be eligible for state and federal funding. 

“I’d like to lobby the L.A. Regional Water Board to move on getting Malibu Creek a TMDL for non-native aquatic species,” Sharpton says.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Council of Fly Fishing International, where Sharpton is the Vice President of Conservation, has received a donation of $5,000 from Sierra Pacific Flyfishers to begin a new conservation program called “Fishing for Conservation: Steelhead Recovery in Malibu Creek.” It will commence this spring after the frogs finish breeding. 

Her years-long conservation efforts, first as Executive Director of Mountains Restoration Trust and now with Environmental Restoration Group, LLC, have reached an inflection point with the anticipated downing of the Malibu’s Rindge Dam. Some two and a half miles from the coast, the dam stops the natural steelhead route from the Santa Monica Bay to Malibu lagoon, inland to spawn.

Built in the 1920s, Rindge was decommissioned in 1967, yet still stands. It is actually part of Malibu Creek State Park, the 8,215-acre gem that includes remnants of the “M.A.S.H” television set, as well as the Reagan Ranch. 

Vistas truly earn the moniker of “breathtaking,” with one peak that soars more than 2,700 feet. California Department of State Parks owns and manages the dam, as well as the park.

For Sharpton, all of this natural beauty includes the flora and fauna that rightfully belong here — and excludes those that don’t. 

“I’m hoping to engage the lake managers by assisting them to reduce the amount of unwanted non-native fish in their waters.  I don’t know the source population, it may be people moving fish for recreational fishing, it may be storm overflows moving the fish downstream,” Sharpton says. 

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