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To save fish, Casa Grande group seeks state help


Cool blue tones washed over the empty tanks at the United Anglers of Casa Grande fish hatchery at the high school campus last week, a time of relative quiet before the facility ramps up to accept tens of thousands of steelhead trout eggs later this year.

The students who nurture them will be among the many who apply for 20 or so spots in the nonprofit’s Casa Grande High School-affiliated program each year, a hands-on hatchery experience also credited with significant habitat rehabilitation and monitoring in the Petaluma River watershed.

This year, those students will be getting something new for their efforts — academic science credit.

“Where else do you have kids running a program like this?” said Ben Slick, a member of the United Anglers board of directors, who joined the board after hearing of his own daughter’s experience in the program.

The University of California system’s recognition of the United Anglers program as a laboratory science course is the latest milestone for the independent organization, which has its roots in a massive, student-staffed cleanup of Petaluma’s Adobe Creek in the early 1980s. The program had previously offered “elective” credit, a less valuable accolade for college-bound students.

Adviser Dan Hubacker said the designation reflected the sophistication and evolution of the organization’s program, where students work on major habitat monitoring and rehabilitation work in the Petaluma watershed while operating a modern hatchery currently valued at approximately $3 million. The hatchery nurtures thousands of young steelhead, a threatened species, each year, and supplies them to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support its steelhead program at Lake Sonoma.

The next step, he said, is to pursue a closer partnership with the state that would authorize the nonprofit to work more easily in the day-to-day rescue of wild steelhead and other salmonid species in the Petaluma area. Those species are increasingly becoming trapped in isolated pools as a result of the recent drought, a trend that threatens to undermine the recovery made possible by decades of restoration work, he said.

“That’s basically suffocating those fish,” said Ellie Slick, a recent Casa Grande graduate and outgoing United Anglers president.

Leaders in the program made their case during a recent tour of the facility by state Sen. Mike McGuire, asking for help to forge an expanded public-private partnership that would pre-authorize United Anglers to gather up and relocate trapped salmon species in areas like Adobe Creek. The group is currently barred from relocating the fish on its own initiative, and must instead call in staff from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to act.

During a tour of the facility, Ellie Slick recalled an episode last year where students identified 11 isolated pools of steelhead in Adobe Creek. By the time a state biologist was able to respond, only one of the pools remained.

“We want to be able to say – we have the students, we have the equipment, we have the knowledge (to do the work),” said Ellie Slick, who will head to Oregon State University this year to study fisheries and wildlife science.

Hubacker contended that the protocol is more burdensome than necessary, and that more fish perish as a result of the delays. Serving as a surrogate for state wildlife for salmonid rescue in the Petaluma watershed could be a win-win at a time when state resources are already stretched thin, he argued.

“The department has been incredibly supportive, but they are understaffed,” Hubacker said. “Here we are trying to be this extension, but we keep getting hit with red tape.”

Ben Slick said the United Anglers reached out to McGuire on the issue after an encounter earlier this year at a Golden Gate Salmon Association event in Sonoma. The state senator has worked closely on fisheries issues in California, and currently serves as chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture.

McGuire, a former Sonoma County supervisor, lauded the group’s work, including the cleanup of Adobe Creek. A natural habitat for salmonids, the waterway had almost completely dried up, a consequence of Petaluma’s drinking water supply system at that time.

The creek is now a revived spawning ground for steelhead trout and other species, and is a lush contrast to the barren trough of decades earlier, according to information from United Anglers.

“It’s so impressive when you look at what the kids have done – Adobe Creek was dead,” McGuire said.

The senator said he would facilitate a meeting with Fish and Wildlife officials in Santa Rosa in the coming weeks as a first step to see what sort of arrangement might be possible.

“If this program had the blessing of the state – if we were truly stamped as a partner – that would change the way we fit in the community,” Ben Slick said.

With an annual budget of $130,000, United Anglers is entirely supported by donations. The organization describes its facility as the only student-run hatchery in the United States, and performs ongoing work to monitor and maintain Adobe Creek.

Hubacker said he’d like to see that habitat work expand to include other waterways in the Petaluma watershed like Lichau and Lynch creeks, in order to create conditions that are suitable for salmon species like steelhead, coho and others to thrive.

“We have a chance to see this in our lifetime,” he said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)