Steelhead enthusiasts rescue fish from the drying Garzas Creek.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
It’s a balmy Wednesday night in Carmel Valley, and five locals can think of nothing better to do than to wade into a mosquito-infested creek and stun little fish.
Strapped up in hip-waders, the volunteers huddle in Garzas Creek’s rocky pools to lure federally-threatened steelhead trout with electric shocks. Hank Smith of the Carmel River Steelhead Association wears the “electrofisher” machine on his back, resembling a white-haired Ghostbuster. The contraption beeps as it sends a jolt into the water, compelling tiny fish to swim toward the metal-framed net.
Amanda Yantos and Jane Atkins of Hilton Bialek Habitat and CRSA’s Brian LaNeve hunch over the murky green water. They scoop up the disoriented fish and pass them assembly-line style net to net, finally plopping it into CRSA member Roger Williams’ bucket of creek water.
They’ve rescued 400 steelhead today, Williams announces, consulting the counter around his neck. The volunteers will drive the rescued fish to the confluence of Garzas Creek and the Carmel River, about a half-mile downstream, effectively giving them a piggyback ride across the dry stretch.
Without CRSA’s interference, the fish wouldn’t have much of a chance. Already Garzas Creek and other tributaries are drying up, a consequence of the over-pumping of the Carmel River aquifer.
The steelhead trying to migrate downstream get trapped in the drying creeks, where they die if left alone. The CRSA’s rescue of 10,000 to 20,000 fish per year has meant the survival of native steelhead. “If it wasn’t for the CRSA rescue efforts, it’s likely the Carmel River steelhead population would be extinct already,” CRSA’s Frank Emerson says.
It’ll be another month or so until Garzas Creek is totally dry, but heat can stress fish in the meantime. Right now the water is about 73 degrees; local steelhead start croaking at 78 degrees. The electric pulse stresses the fish more: “There’s a fine line between shocking them enough to get ‘em and shocking them to death,” LaNeve admits.
Between the warming creek water and the shock, about 2 percent of CRSA’s rescued fish die before reaching deeper waters. “But that’s better than 100 percent,” Emerson says. “If we didn’t do our rescues, all of them would die.”
CRSA has scooped around 4,000 fish from Garzas Creek over the past couple months, and some additional 12,000 from other tributaries and the Carmel River, Emerson says. Combined with the Peninsula water district’s rescue efforts, the groups have reached record levels– about 55,000 steelhead.
The group plans to keep rescuing fish through the first week of August.
On Garzas Creek, the catch of a hearty juvenile gets LaNeve worked up. “That one’s big enough to eat!” he gushes. “They’re the real important fish because they’re the survivors.”
The silver flashes dwindle as the group moves upstream, and mosquitoes swarm with mounting vim. At dusk the volunteers reluctantly call it a day, loading 729 steelhead into their truck. If the rough average of 3 percent of these fish survive to return as spawners in three years, today’s work will yield only 22 adult fish.
The satisfied expressions on their skeeter-bitten faces say it’s worth it.
The Steelhead Association rescues fish most Wednesdays at 5:30pm and Saturdays at 7:30am. Meet at Baja Cantina, 7166 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel. Contact Frank Emerson, 277-0544, firstname.lastname@example.org.