For the first time in decades, Los Angeles media this week reported, an adult endangered southern steelhead trout was spotted in the Malibu Lagoon channel, an event long dreamed of by environmentalists and fishermen.

But the sighting by members of two government agencies and a non-profit foundation has spurred debate and suspicion among some environmentalists and activists, who question the legitimacy of that claim as well as the argument that the sighting indicates that a controversial wetlands restoration is working.

]In 2012, the California Department of Parks and Recreation launched a dramatic reshaping and bulldozing of Malibu lagoon that opponents say is further damaging the habitat of the degraded, but wildlife-filled, lagoon and wetlands. Proponents, including the state's allies, The Bay Foundation and the Santa Monica Mountains Resources Conservation District, say it will restore water quality to the sluggish lagoon and revitalize marine life, birds and other creatures.

Suzanne Goode, senior environmental scientist for the state parks department, and one of the officials who spotted the fish two weeks ago, says the steelhead sighting is proof of the restoration project's success:

“This is very significant because we had seen them in the creek, but never in the channel, proving that the water quality has improved,” she said. “The fact that they are in the channels shows that the project was pleasing to them, it has created a better habitat for them.”

But others claim the agency is misrepresenting the fish sighting to bolster support for its restoration project.

“The citing of one fish – even if it is confirmed to be a steelhead trout – means nothing to a genuine ecological restoration expert,” says Marcia Hanscom, a key opponent of bulldozing the wetlands to restore it. Hanscom, co-founder of Ballona Institute, adds, “That doesn't mean it's a viable population.” Andy Lyon, a surfer and lifetime resident of Malibu, says, “I just think it's very suspect timing.” A third opponent of the restoration, Athena Shlien, says, “I would like to see proof” that they really saw a southern steelhead trout. 

Protesters claimed Malibu Lagoon would be hurt by restoration but lost their battle.; Credit: Marcia Hanscom

Protesters claimed Malibu Lagoon would be hurt by restoration but lost their battle.; Credit: Marcia Hanscom

Steelhead trout along the Southern California coast are an endangered species. Experts consider them genetically distinct from other steelheads, reflected by their ability to survive where streams have been highly urbanized, damaged or modified by humans, according to Dr. Peter Moyle, associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Moyle says he can understand why dredging-and-restoration opponents, who lost their battle to the state parks department, are suspicious about the lone 20-inch trout reportedly spotted during an official habitat survey of the lagoon. 

“I can see why they would think that – because it is the wrong time of the year,” Moyle says. “These trout normally come up the stream in the winter.”

Moyle theorizes the single trout may have somehow gotten trapped and was unable to make it out to the ocean again.

Lyon, like other critics in the area, feels the spotting of the steelhead trout is  one of the state agency's “PR moves” to justify another major project at Malibu Creek – the multimillion-dollar removal of the Rindge Dam about four miles upstream from the lagoon.

By touting their discovery of a single trout, Lyon claims, they have created “a definable need [for the agency] to take the dam down” and thereby expand the habitat for the fish.

Lyon and other critics say the agency's approach to removing the dam will cause more damage than good.

Rarely seen Rindge Dam is 100 feet high and would cost $100 million to remove.; Credit: Andy Lyon

Rarely seen Rindge Dam is 100 feet high and would cost $100 million to remove.; Credit: Andy Lyon

“When you start driving a bunch of dump trucks through the creek bed” – to remove the tons of concrete that make up the 100-foot-high Rindge Dam – “that's going to harm the habitat,” he says.

Most agree that the nearly 90-year-old dam's existence and location has limited the habitat for southern steelhead trout.

The negative impact of the dam on Malibu Creek “provides a good argument to remove [it],” says Moyle. “It would provide the fish a lot of access for habitat that they can't gain access to right now.”

A significant buildup of sediment meant to flow into the Pacific Ocean is now backed-up behind the dam, and the dam has cut off the route for trout to migrate upstream.

The state's plan to remove the dam would cost somewhere upwards of $100 million.

Anti-restoration activist Shlien thinks the dam is a problem, but says other more pressing issues would be ignored to pay for it. “I mean look at the State of California. We are not in a place to spend money on a dam removal.”

Shlien says the state parks department is “not a trustworthy organization.” She is referring to the 2013 scandal in which the California Department of Parks and Recreation was exposed for hiding $20 million while pleading poverty –  and closing 70 of the state's 278 parks. Shlien says, “There needs to be some sort of third-party agency to verify this agency.”

But Goode insists to L.A. Weekly, “All of the bad things critics said would happen didn't happen. Instead we have a much healthier lagoon now.” 

Malibu Lagoon's wetlands before bulldozing began (2011).; Credit: Andy Lyon

Malibu Lagoon's wetlands before bulldozing began (2011).; Credit: Andy Lyon

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