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Conservation Groups Challenge Threat to Steelhead Protections

Irrigators seek to strip federal protections from fish
March 31, 2003
Fresno, CA —

A coalition of seven conservation and fishermen's organizations today asked a federal judge in Fresno to hear their side of the story in a lawsuit filed by a group of irrigation districts seeking to strip federal protections from wild steelhead in California's Central Valley. The irrigation district lawsuit argues that steelhead born and raised in hatcheries must be included with wild steelhead when considering endangered species status.

The case is the latest in a concerted effort by developers, irrigation and agribusiness interests, and others to strip Endangered Species Act protections from salmon and steelhead stocks up and down the Pacific coast following a controversial court opinion in September 2001. That ruling found that artificially bred hatchery fish should be considered along with their wild cousins when decisions are made regarding ESA protections.

If granted intervenor status, the groups would be able to present arguments in the case, and to ensure that needed steelhead restoration efforts continue. Conservationists and fishermen seek to intervene on the side of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA Fisheries formerly known as NMFS), the defendants. The groups worry that the Bush administration, which oversees NOAA Fisheries, will not mount a vigorous defense of wild Central Valley steelhead on its own.

"We've seen this same legal claim by other interests that want to ignore the problems facing these runs and turn back the clock on protection for these fish," said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the suit. "Instead what we need, and what the law requires, are sustainable populations of wild steelhead in these rivers."

"A fisherman knows as soon as a fish hits if it's hatchery or wild," said Norm Ploss of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers. "Our organizations share a devotion to the protection and restoration of these once-prolific wild steelhead runs and we want to make sure that the stream restoration projects, stream clean ups, and other efforts we've made to bring these fish back are not abandoned."

The steelhead in the Central Valley once returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems in great numbers. But dewatering of streams for irrigation, the construction of impassable dams, and habitat destruction have eliminated these fish from much of their historic spawning grounds and have resulted in steep population declines. According to a report released in late February, scientists for NOAA Fisheries are "highly concerned" that Central Valley steelhead population trends show a continuation of that decline.

"The irrigation districts are pushing junk science to advance an agenda that spells the elimination of these fish from the Central Valley," said Jeff Miller, with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Their position is unsupported by science, the law, and common sense. The best science shows that hatchery fish are not only different, but that they harm wild steelhead by introducing disease, changing genetics, and competing for scarce resources. Man-made mutant fish shouldn't be counted towards total wild steelhead population numbers when in fact they are a major threat to the species."

"People need to realize the steelhead are like a canary in a coalmine. When our rivers won't support them any longer there's something terribly wrong," said Kaitlin Lovell of Trout Unlimited. "We're getting into this lawsuit to bring a little common sense and balance back to the table; two things in very short supply when the pave-and-plough group are allowed to run roughshod."

The groups seeking intervention in the irrigation districts' case are Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Federation of Fly Fishers, Delta Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited, Center for Biological Diversity, Woodbridge Rivers Company, and Pacific Rivers Council.

BACKGROUND

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The Irrigation District's lawsuit is based in part on a September 2001 ruling that stripped endangered species status from wild Oregon coast coho. The government refused to appeal that ruling. However, in an emergency appeal brought by conservation and fishing groups, the court reinstated endangered species protections for the fish. Yet salmon and steelhead opponents continue to jump on the bandwagon, seeking to deprive salmon and steelhead stocks up and down the West Coast of needed protection.

In another case, the administration readily agreed to abandon "critical habitat" protection for salmon and steelhead along the entire West Coast in response to a lawsuit by Oregon building industry groups. Fears of a similar failure of the government to vigorously defend this suit prompted the conservation and fishing groups to intervene.

Contacts

Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340 x 27

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity (510) 663-0616 x 3

Norm Ploss, Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers (831) 588-3817

Kaitlin Lovell, Tout Unlimited, (503) 827-5700

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.