Friday, February 23 , 2018, 1:30 am | Fair 49º

 
 
 
 

Captain’s Log: With Trout Stocking Program Halted at Lake Cachuma, Community Feels Ripple Effects

We’ve got a terrible problem up at Cachuma Lake. For more decades than I can remember, picturesque Cachuma Lake has been planted with fish — primarily trout. Now, the entire trout stocking program has been halted, and the community suffers gravely.

November is the time for action on this issue, because November is when the annual trout stocking program begins.

For all of these years, the Department of Fish & Game (now renamed the Department of Fish & Wildlife, or DFW) stocked the lake for about six months out of the year, every other week. The Santa Barbara County Parks and Recreation Department bought trout and stocked on alternating weekends, so that the public had plenty of good wholesome recreational opportunities every week, with lots of holdover fish to enjoy all year.

Those trout are the reason for the season, to many happy campers at the lake’s campgrounds. A fresh trout dinner, cooked over a campfire, is a tasty and healthy treat. Day visits are also popular. A person could bring the grandkids, kids or friends up to the lake for the day, enjoy some quality time engaged in a fun pastime in a gorgeous environment, and take home some healthy trout that is often worth more (at market values) than what it cost them to go on the adventure.

Then the state stopped stocking all of our county waters awhile back, even though it maintains a robust trout hatchery program (the department operates 24 trout and anadromous fish hatcheries in California), and it continues to stock lakes and streams in much of the rest of the state. Yes, of course, there were lawsuits driving the issue, according to information I received from Nancee Murray, senior staff counsel for the DFW.

Our county, recognizing the recreational and economic importance of the trout stocking program, stepped up its own stocking program to pick up the state’s slack and to serve the needs of county residents and visitors. Then suddenly this past spring, the state sent the county a letter, ordering it to halt its stocking program.

The timing of that letter roughly coincided with the end of the stocking season, so its effects were not felt until now. November is when the stocking program is scheduled to resume. That’s the way it has been for all of these years.

So why did the state stop stocking trout in Santa Barbara County waters, and why did it send our county a letter ordering it to stop stocking our own waters? I asked that question of John O’Brien, an environmental scientist for the DFW. His answer was: “In short, DFW determined that Santa Barbara County would need a Private Stocking Permit [PSP] to stock trout in the lake. In order to issue the PSP, DFW must complete a pre-stocking evaluation [PSE], as per conditions of the 2010 EIR/EIS. A PSE is required for each water planted throughout California. This evaluation requires DFW to consider each sensitive or listed species in each water relative to the stocking of trout. In the case of Cachuma, both the federally threatened California red-legged frog and the endangered southern California steelhead were identified as species of concern in the PSE.”

I recommend that our county demand to see the state’s PSE and take a hard look at the quality of the science utilized before accepting it.

OK, so a concern is that stocked trout may make it over the dam and interbreed with wild steelhead below the dam. Well, now wait a minute! Many (and it could easily become all) of the trout planted by the county were triploids (sterile trout), incapable of breeding. So let’s check that off the list of concerns. Maybe there is some concern about sterile stocked trout making it over the dam and competing with steelhead for food. Listen, a wild steelhead is a fierce competitor, and I’d hate to be a newly stocked trout going snout to snout with a hungry and angry wild steelhead. But if there is a concern, mitigation programs can be developed, such as creating netting to trap any escaping planted trout. My point is, we can come up with solutions that will allow a stocking program to be good for all.

That leaves red-legged frogs. C’mon! Really?! Next thing you know, someone will want all the bass in the lake euthanized because bass just love eating frogs. (Note: I sincerely hope I do not someday regret even putting that thought into words, because some outrageous radical may decide it’s a good idea!) We need those bass for recreational purposes and for a healthy, complex lake ecosystem.

My sense is that there is much too great a social, recreational and economic benefit, stemming from the trout stocking program, to ditch it over a threatened (not even endangered) red-legged frog. Efforts can be devised and funding sought to enhance some habitat and create a haven for red-legged frogs without halting trout stocking in all county waters. Cachuma Lake may be good habitat, but it isn’t natural habitat, because we built the lake and fishing was part of the plan. The state should always respect that plan, and the county should always insist upon it. Let’s fix the frog problem another way. We can do it. Meanwhile, let’s stock the lake this month with trout for much-needed recreational opportunities.

I asked an old friend and stalwart conservation warrior, Mike Moropoulos, for his thoughts. Mike serves on the Santa Barbara County Fish & Game Commission and has spearheaded or worked as a volunteer for a very long list of naturalist causes. We’ve read his numerous columns in various publications. I was not surprised to learn that he has strong feelings about this issue.

“I feel strongly that in closing down the stocking program at the lake, along with the present closure of all stream fishing in the county, those of us who enjoy trout fishing are forced to travel outside our county to pursue that interest," Moropoulous said. "Cachuma is central to Santa Barbara and all county communities to our north. These communities contribute greatly to our economic interest as well as our outdoor heritage. One of the responsibilities of our county government is to provide as many resources as possible for our citizens. In Cachuma Lake, the county has one of the most beautiful and productive venues in the state, and we should provide every opportunity for those constituents to enjoy that splendor. The most direct effort in achieving this would be to continue the trout stocking program at Cachuma that is currently in effect.”

I feel that we the people need the recreation and the healthy protein. We need the Nature Center (one of our most precious local nonprofits), and I can’t see letting it suffer from losing support due to decreasing recreational visits to the lake. The Nature Center is concerned about the decrease in recreational interest in the lake, in part because that is a part of its support system.

My advice is for the county Parks and Recreation Department to go right ahead and begin stocking trout this month — on schedule — and let the courts decide, if/when it comes to that. I do not believe there has been a court order to stop the stocking. It was just a letter letting the county know that it would be ignoring the policies and practices of the DFW. The DFW seems to feel stuck, and it is not about to issue its permit, which it has declared is needed by anyone planning to stock a body of water.

I’d hate to see our county do nothing on this issue just because doing nothing is the cheapest, easiest and most risk-free way to go. That would be ignoring the mandate to provide recreational opportunities.

Everyone who feels strongly about continuing the trout stocking program at Lake Cachuma is requested to email the county at [email protected] and put “Keep stocking trout at Cachuma Lake” in your subject line. In the body of your message, feel free to rant. I sure have!

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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