Fish in the Los Angeles River
October 28, 2008 § 31 Comments
If you spend time along the Los Angeles River, sometimes, usually at the periphery of your vision, you’ll notice seeming incongruous splashes in still waters. You may wonder – was that a fish that just jumped or am I imagining things? You’re not imagining things, there are actually lots of fish in the Los Angeles River. Not as many and not the same kinds as have been there historically, but still plenty, and seeming more lately than in the recent past. In this blog entry, Creek Freak will school you on a bit of the river’s fishy history, and cast our nets into its waters today.
Let’s start way back with the fossil record as uncovered by researchers at the La Brea Tar Pits. Three fish species have been documented there: Oncorhynchus mykiss (steelhead/rainbow trout), Gila orcutti (arroyo chub), and Gasterosteus aculeatus (three spined stickleback.) Fossil evidence and trapped samples also show many amphibians and freshwater invertebrates, including the extinct river shrimp mentioned in a previous post.
Archduke Ludwig Louis Salvator, in his 1877 Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, notes the following tantalizing fish: “the salmon, Quinnat salmon (Salmo quinnat), abundant between November and June; two kinds of trout, the brook trout (Salar iridea); and the salmon trout (Ptychocheilus grandis).” These names, based on an internet search, are today known as the king salmon, rainbow trout, and Sacramento pikeminnow. Neither the pikeminnow nor the king salmon have been verified by other sources. However, an errant chinook was observed several years ago making its way up Ballona Creek – historically a distributary of the Los Angeles River. Perhaps he wasn’t errant, but a homecoming descendant of Salvator’s Quinnat salmon?
According to Blake Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Re-Birth (p.26), historically at least seven species of native fish were common in the river: southern steelhead, Pacific lamprey, Pacific brook lamprey, arroyo chub, unarmored three-spine stickleback, Santa Ana sucker and Santa Ana speckled dace. All of these species are gone from the river today (though a couple persist in some tributaries.) The Pacific brook lamprey is extinct. The steelhead, stickleback and speckled dace are officially endangered species; the sucker and Pacific lamprey probably should be. Of the historic fish species, the Arroyo chub are perhaps doing best, though in a small portion of their historic range. Reintroduction of the arroyo chub was the focus of Pasadena’s recent habitat restoration efforts on a soft-bottom stretch of the Arroyo Seco – a tributary of the Los Angeles.
Now and then in early- to mid- 20th-century accounts, there are reports of fish in the river; here are a few examples from the Los Angeles Times. In an August 5th 1923 article Drain Pipe Ike Waltons, the Times reported a “Mexican youth” fishing with a screen having caught “a number of carp and one large flat mud fish” in the Los Angeles River bed. On November 14th 1937 an article Extra! Three-Pound Bass Caught in Los Angeles River tells the story of Justo Najjora who went to the Los Angeles River for sand, but brought along a net to catch some crayfish and ended up catching a 3-pound bass. A March 1st 1940 article Jail Trusty Catches Fish — Yes, in Los Angeles River told (in demeaning language) about an imprisoned Native American named William Greyfox who bare-handedly caught a 25-inch 6-pound steelhead. Pity Poor Fish in LA River (March 11 1941) questions whether Fish & Game trucks need to be brought in to save steelhead in the river. A March 31st 1941 article Cycling Couple Catch Fish in Hands in Los Angeles River tells of a couple (Mr. and Mrs. Ernest L. Shockley of Glendale) who were bicycling along the river and caught a 10-inch steelhead near Los Feliz Boulevard.
Unfortunately the general tone of these articles is one of great surprise to find that there are actually (gasp!) fish in the river. Given the long history of Los Angeles River fish, it seems a bit strange to us that reporters would expect not to find fish there – though, at the time, the river was very degraded and considered a dumping ground in many areas.
In 1993, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (NHM) produced a report on the biota of the Los Angeles River (not currently available on-line, but available at the downtown Los Angeles library.) The report includes a section entitled The Past and Present Freshwater Fish Fauna of the Los Angeles River: With Particular Reference to the Area of Griffith Park by Camm C. Swift and Jeffrey Seigel. This excellent report appears to be where Gumprecht got most of his information on fish history. The historic accounts include plenty of important details: migration throughout parts of the river by season and by age of the fish species, habitat requirements for spawning, and details of historic accounts where fish species were sighted and collected. The report included a series of four fish sampling events from May 1991 to January 1992 at various sites in the river stretch near Griffith Park. Fishes collected were: more than 1100 mosquitofish, about 70 fathead minnow, 19 tilapia, 10-12 carp, and 1 goldfish.
Anecdotally, since around 2004 or so, it seems that fish are easier to spot in the river. In the Glendale Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin, there are plenty of people fishing, and it’s not uncommon to see the dark silhouettes of fish moving through the waters. One of the most reliable spots for this is looking off the downstream end of the Burbank Boulevard Bridge. There are a few on-line videos showing this (relatively-polished and amateur.)
In September 2008, the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) published their second State of the River Report entitled The Fish Study. FoLAR collected fish samples at four sites in the Glendale Narrows and found results similar to the 1993 NHM study. Sampling each site twice in August and September 2007, they caught 1214 individual fish. The take included 668 mosquitofish, 271 tilapia, 92 green sunfish, 83 fathead minnow, 58 carp, 24 black bullhead, 7 Amazon sailfin catfish and 1 largemouth bass.
Given that many of the fish caught are eaten, the FoLAR study also assayed fish samples to test for toxicity. The FoLAR report found relatively safe low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. PCBs were highest in carp (9.4 to 16.3 parts per billion) though still below the California Office of Environmental Heath Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) advisory level (21 parts per billion) for folks eating fish three times a week. Mercury was highest in sunfish (20-50 parts per billion) though also below the OEHHA advisory level (70 parts per billion) for folks eating fish three times a week. Higher levels are likely to accumulate in older larger fish. The study states that its sample may not be sufficient to be conclusive (most of the carp analyzed weren’t mature enough or large enough to accumulate lots of toxins,) but overall it doesn’t look too bad. Cooking tips suggest that it’s safer to eat the fillet than to make stews or soups (as chemicals can concentrate in the head and guts.) Copies of the report are available from FoLAR.
There are quite a few places to fish along the river. The most popular fishing spots are the deeper ponding areas in Elysian Valley: immediately downstream from the 2 Freeway (around the end of Ripple Place) and around the ends of Shoredale Avenue and Harwood Street. Fishermen informally interviewed use tortillas or canned corn for bait.
It’s encouraging that there are lots of fish in the river. Why should we have have expected anything else? Even these non-native fish support other species, including osprey. But before you liberate your goldfish (or other aquatic pets) in the river, please consider that introducing non-natives can have a terrible effect on the native populations of fish and amphibians. They are especially notorious for eating the eggs and young of our native frogs!
Fish are a critically important indicator of stream health. Restoring steelhead runs can’t be done by restoring just the main channel though just one city, but will require a watershed approach, with continuous functional streambed habitat restoration from the mouth to mountainside tributaries. Parks along the top of the river (take your pick) are good. Side stream habitat restoration projects (including along the Lower Arroyo Seco in Pasadena and along the Tujunga Wash just north of Valley College) are even better… but we’re going to need to get into the channel bottom and remove some concrete for us to restore fish habitat.
Lewis MacAdams is fond of saying that we’ll know that our job is done when the steelhead return to the Los Angeles River. They’re endangered, but there are a few of them out in the ocean today, testing the Los Angeles’ waters now and then, waiting for us to do our part to heal our streams and welcome them back to waterways they’ve inhabited for millennia.