Environmental Monitoring: Fish Population Provides Litmus Test

Steelhead Trout are the litmus test when conducting environmental monitoring to assess the health of San Luis Obispo (SLO) County’s watershed. Without doubt, the depletion of the trout foreshadows broader wildlife threats. Field biologist, Freddy Otte, spearheads municipal environmental compliance and monitoring work through the city’s Natural Resource Department (SLO NRD). His primary goal, amidst a host of water pollution challenges, is ecological restoration and an increase in salmonid populations.

Monitoring Water Pollution

The leading cause of water pollution, Otte explains, is storm-water runoff. The regulations set out in the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program (SWPPP) were created to mitigate this effect. Simultaneously, the county is running the Steelhead Monitoring Project (SMP), a program for preserving our shared environment. The combination of these two programs—one regulatory and the other preservation based—enables Otte to focus his passion for saving fish through protection of their environment.

“I want the people to understand why we do what we do.” Otte acknowledges the importance of locals knowing regulatory authorities are committed to preserving and restoring the community’s environmental resources.

“I want the people to understand why we do what we do.”

Wildlife Field Work

After graduation from Cal Poly, Otte followed his fishery wildlife aspirations, working for the Central Coast Salmon Enhancement project. In 2005, he moved onto SLO NRD. Today, his project list of environmental work remains diverse and seemingly endless – collaring mountain lions, a 1.2 acre wetland meadow and riparian planting grant, the 4th year of the Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program, the Mission Plaza native species planting, and the Steelhead Monitoring Project, to name a few. “I’d have to take my shoes off to count all of them,” he says humorously. With such a full agenda, what feeds his passion? “Fish like that,” he explained, pointing to a prominent Steelhead Trout portrait and working on SWPPP and the SMP.

Field Data Collection in SLO Creek

This year, the SMP is adding an underwater Didson camera in SLO Creek. This camera shoots a sonar beam through turbid water allowing biologists to observe fish movement when eyesight cannot, providing a more accurate count of fish in the redd spawning surveys which began at the end of January. Steelhead tagging is coming as well. Tagging steelhead will allow Otte to monitor the fish, collecting field data on migration patterns between our waterways and the ocean to see how many fish return to their initial spawning locations in our county.

In his role with SMP, Otte acts as a mentor in the locally based, Watershed Stewards Program (WSP), a statewide AmeriCorps program giving college graduates the opportunity to be involved in salmonid habitat restoration, environmental conservation projects, and other environmental or fisheries related projects. This partnership allows Otte to share his experience with the next generation of professional biologists.

Freddy Otte is also the vice president of the Salmonid Restoration Federation (SRF), an organization that aids with SMP. SRF’s mission is to promote restoration and stewardship of California’s native salmon, steelhead, and trout populations and their natural habitat. Otte’s involvement with these programs gives him a statewide perspective on California fisheries work and progress, allowing SLO County’s environmental compliance and monitoring program to remain current.

Benefits of Environmental Monitoring and SWPPP Compliance

Otte jokes that his ultimate goal is “to be able to walk across SLO Creek on the backs of steelhead.” Historically, the creek was teeming with steelhead. He is hopeful this year’s heavy rains will further increase the number of fish that return to their spawning grounds.

Otte jokes that his ultimate goal is “to be able to walk across SLO Creek on the backs of steelhead.”

Under SWPPP compliance, locals can expect to see less pollution in creeks and streams, and—ultimately—the ocean. Unsurprisingly, steelhead trout thrive in a cleaner, healthier water—a testament to both its improved quality and quantity. In turn, the thriving trout are a natural and visible water quality indicator, providing tangible evidence of the success of the tandem SWPPP and SMP environmental compliance and monitoring projects.

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