"We need wild steelhead in the Central Valley's rivers," said Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice. "Because the Endangered Species Act was designed to protect habitat for wild fish -- not concrete pools for man-made steelhead, we will use every tool we have to ensure that the wild fish will remain protected."
The irrigation district lawsuit argued that steelhead born and raised in hatcheries must be included with wild steelhead when considering endangered species status.
"It's now up to NMFS to follow the science and continue to protect wild steelhead," said Kaitlin Lovell of Trout Unlimited. "Steelhead in the Central Valley have been lost from 95 percent of their historic habitat, and they continue to face threats from unchecked water use, blockage by dams, urban sprawl, and polluted rivers. The bottom line is this: without adequate ESA protection, steelhead recovery simply won't stand a chance."
The steelhead in the Central Valley once returned every year from the ocean to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems in great numbers. According to a report released in 2003, federal scientists are "highly concerned" that Central Valley steelhead populations continue to decline.
In addition, the Court agreed with the conservation and fishing groups that NMFS never determined that rainbow trout and steelhead in the Central Valley should be considered together.
"Anyone who's ever been lucky enough to see or catch a steelhead in the wild knows they're a special fish," said, Norm Ploss of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers and its Wild Steelhead Committee. "The irrigators didn't bring this case because they were interested in protecting rainbow trout. They wanted to use rainbow trout to allow more water diversions from Central Valley rivers."
The case was the latest in a concerted effort by developers, irrigation and agribusiness interests, and others to strip federal Endangered Species Act protections from salmon and steelhead stocks up and down the Pacific coast following a controversial district court opinion in September 2001. The ruling found that under the agency's then-existing guidance, artificially bred hatchery fish could not be ignored in ESA listing decisions. Treating hatchery fish as the equivalent of wild fish when making listing decisions has been widely criticized by scientists, conservationists, and fishermen.
"Attempting to de-list wild Central Valley steelhead based on hatchery fish is outrageous," said Jeff Miller, spokesperson with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Just last year, a National Marine Fisheries biological review team concluded that the Central Valley run should properly be upgraded from threatened to endangered status, since less than one percent of the historical wild steelhead run remains. Hatchery fish are contributing to the declines of wild steelhead by introducing disease, changing the genetics of wild fish, and competing for scarce resources."
Earthjustice represented the seven groups arguing on behalf of wild steelhead protection, including 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.