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Student-run United Anglers of Casa Grande gets permit to help dwindling trout population in Petaluma

A long-sought permit recently obtained by United Anglers of Casa Grande will allow the organization to rescue fish directly from Petaluma’s watershed, which will help save the dwindling local steelhead trout population and allow its student-run hatchery to operate year-round.

The organization, which this year celebrates 40 years of local environmental conservation and fish population restoration, was granted the federal permit this summer following a yearlong review process.

Fish rescued by United Anglers from the local watershed will be transferred to the organization’s state-of-the-art hatchery — California’s only high school-run fish rehabilitation program — before being released back to their natural habitat.

“Our focus has always been nearby Adobe Creek and the steelhead trout in this watershed,” said Dan Hubacher, who has run the organization since the retiring of its founder, Tom Furrer, in 2011. “And I remember as a student, as an alumni of the program, I remember sitting here and Mr. Furrer saying, ‘We can’t touch these fish. The permit won’t allow us.’”

Hubacher said it’s surreal to think about how far the group has come in its efforts over the years.

“If we can get multiple locations where we can find fish, we can bring them in (and) can hopefully jump start this population,” he said. “Through the last couple of years, not only are we not seeing adults, which is alarming, but we’re not seeing juveniles.

“And even in Adobe Creek, there was a time where you could walk throughout the system, from Lakeville Highway all the way up the mountain, (and) you could find fish. That is not the case anymore.”

An established nonprofit, United Anglers was created to promote environmental awareness and activism through hands-on habitat restoration that supports the survival and recovery of federally threatened salmon.

Students operate and maintain the organization’s hatchery, located on the Casa Grande High School campus in Petaluma, and learn a range of relevant skills through practical application and intensive environmental curriculum.

The permit will allow United Anglers to now pursue a year-round process of rescuing and raising stranded steelhead trout throughout the Petaluma watershed. In the first phase of the program, students will collect baby fish in the early spring months. Those fish, which are expected to total about 8,000 annually, will be taken to the 32,000-gallon hatchery, where they will be reared for one year.

Hubacher said this process can largely increase the fish population’s chance of survival.

“This work continues to not only benefit the fish and environment but the students and the broader community,” the Petaluma City School District said in a June 3 newsletter. “What an incredible example of (Petaluma City School) students solving real-world problems.”

In the program’s second phase, students will examine local pools or streams that appear to be drying up, posing a threat to aquatic life, and remove a portion of the fish to be taken to the hatchery. After spending a year there, the fish will be released back to their natural habitat and are expected to return when it’s time to spawn.

Students take tissue samples of each fish they care for in order to track their future survival.

In recent years, the United Anglers have been known for their successful rearing of tens of thousands of steelhead trout from the Russian River.

“You might have Adobe Creek, Lynch Creek, San Antonio Creek — all represented in the fish hatchery here,” he said.

Petaluma will soon be represented within the hatchery walls, a milestone Hubacher said is exciting.

Logan Spencer, this year’s student president of the United Anglers of Casa Grande, started working with Hubacher and fellow students last year when he was a junior.

Now a senior, Spencer said he’s looking forward to working with steelhead in his own community.

“It will definitely help us figure out what’s the best thing we can do for these fish locally,” Spencer said Monday. “It’s a very small population, so it’s a very big responsibility to do something like this.”

Spencer hopes to go on to work with marine life as a full-time career, and hopes future Anglers will understand the impact they will make on the lifespan of the fragile species.

“It might seem like a drop in an endless sea of problems with endangered species and steelhead in general, (but) especially with this year moving forward with a new permit, (I) along with every other generation after me (are) going to be very fortunate to be able to work with these fish and be able to see the benefits of the classes that were before them,” Spencer said. “It makes a lot more of an impact than you think.”

In 2017, United Anglers evaluated the presence of Chinook salmon in the Petaluma River and, in 2021, 4,000 endangered coho were moved to the school’s indoor tanks after conditions at a Lake Sonoma hatchery became unhealthy due to the drought.

Since United Anglers is completely funded by donors and used to keeping its hatchery open for only part of the year, Hubacher is hoping for a big turnout at the organization’s upcoming anniversary fundraiser, to be held Nov. 5 at the Lucchesi Center in Petaluma.

Hubacher said the fundraiser would also help them toward the purchase of a new cooling unit to monitor water temperature in the hatchery, which costs $150,000. The fundraiser event will feature a silent option and other prize opportunities.

“Now every little thing we do — from the day-to-day sitting in the class, to when (students) set foot in the hatchery, to when they fundraise, to when they go to the creek — is going back into this watershed,” Hubacher said. “It’s all going right to Petaluma. And if that doesn’t light a fire, I don’t know what will.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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