The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected an attempt to strip protected status from wild steelhead trout in California’s Central Valley. A group of Central Valley irrigators had argued that ocean-going Central Valley steelhead population should be removed from the endangered species list based on their opinion that freshwater rainbow trout – which never go to sea – might someday replace extinct steelhead populations.
Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice who represented the coalition of conservation and fish groups said, “Steelhead and people need clean water, swimmable streams, and healthy habitat. We all win when we protect and recover wild steelhead and their habitat.”
The Court agreed with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the conservation and fishing groups that NMFS may protect steelhead without including all freshwater resident rainbow trout in the protected population. The Court concluded that “under the ESA, interbreeding is not alone determinative of whether organisms must be classified alike where, as here, they develop and behave differently.”
Steelhead once returned from the ocean in the millions every year to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems in the Central Valley. Today, these fish have been lost from 95% of their historic habitat, and they continue to face threats from unchecked water use, blockage by dams, urban sprawl, and polluted rivers.
“Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to see or catch a steelhead in the wild knows they’re a special fish,” said, Mark Rockwell of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers. “They wanted to add rainbow trout numbers to the few steelhead left, thus removing protections for steelhead, and allowing more water diversions from Central Valley rivers.”
The Court’s ruling represents the latest rejection of attempts by big agricultural interests to take more water out of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem. It also follows a report issued earlier this month by the State Water Resources Control Board which found that greater flows and less water diversions were needed to restore the estuary and its imperiled fish populations.
In its ruling, the Court cited evidence from several independent scientific reviews that all found even where some interbreeding may occur, freshwater rainbow trout cannot regenerate or replace a steelhead population if those sea-run fish are lost.
“It’s time to start working to restore this irreplaceable part of California’s natural heritage,” said Kate Miller of Trout Unlimited. “Today’s ruling helps put the focus back where it belongs – on efforts to restore clean water and healthy habitat in Central Valley streams.”
Earthjustice represented the five conservation and fishing groups arguing on behalf of wild steelhead protection in these two cases, including Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, the Federation of Fly Fishers, Delta Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited, and the Center for Biological Diversity.