Saving the Rainbows of San Diego County

Saving the Rainbows of San Diego County

In October 2003 a hunter lost in Southern California's Cleveland National Forest built a signal fire that grew out of control and sparked one of the largest

In October 2003 a hunter lost in Southern California's Cleveland National Forest built a signal fire that grew out of control and sparked one of the largest wildfires in the nation's history. The Cedar Fire burned for five days, scorched 273,000 acres and destroyed 2,200 homes. Among the habitat and wildlife destroyed by the blaze were the entire populations of wild rainbow trout in Boulder Creek, Cedar Creek, Canejos Creek and the Sweetwater River.

But thanks to a serendipitous decision back in 1997 to collect some rainbows from the upper reaches of the Sweetwater River for an ecology display at the Chula Vista Nature Center (located where the river drains into San Diego Bay), the Sweetwater rainbow strain has been preserved. Seven of these fish--the last of their kind in the world--are currently swimming in an aquarium and will be used as brood stock to restore native trout to the Sweetwater River.

The Cedar Fire and the devastation it wrought on the Sweetwater River was a wakeup call to conservationist Allen Greenwood of San Diego Trout. "If we hadn't saved the trout, they'd be gone forever," he says. Along with conservation groups such as the Golden State Flycasters and the Hubbs Sea World Research Institute, Greenwood is turning their lucky break with the Sweetwater rainbows into a comprehensive plan to preserve other populations of wild trout native to San Diego County.

What these groups propose is to collect wild trout that live in the creeks and rivers of San Diego County, use them to establish broodstock for each of these individual strains and then repopulate the streams to prevent their extirpation--be it from fire or development.

Greenwood says the program is kind of like a gene bank, and akin to the program to restore the California condor. "The idea is to keep the native fish native and keep them in their drainages," he says. "We are advancing things further than what a regular hatchery situation is."

The first step in the program is collecting the wild fish, which can be problematic because the populations of these wild rainbows are so small. The second step is establishing a broodstock and, lastly, reintroducing the fish to the rivers. Greenwood says the reintroduction program has been approved by the California Department of Fish and Game and is in accordance with the state's Steelhead Restoration Manual. The rivers and creeks targeted by the program include San Mateo Creek, Santa Margarita River, San Luis Rey River, Sweetwater River and San Diego River.

But even with this program in motion, Greenwood recognizes that the ball needs to get rolling sooner than later. "It's a worsening situation, and as the situation worsens there are fewer and fewer fish," he says.

For more information, contact www.sandiegotrout.org.