The National Marine Fisheries Service initially proposed Endangered Species Act protection for the steelhead populations in August 1996, but in 1998 decided not to protect them, instead deferring to state salmon plans in Oregon and California. The new lawsuit argues that relying on the state salmon plans was not sufficient reason for denying Endangered Species Act protection to the fish, and that ESA protection is in fact necessary to save steelhead from extinction.
"We are pursuing Endangered Species Act protection for steelhead to supplement state and local efforts to save the fish," said Tim McKay, of the Northcoast Environmental Center, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Local and state efforts, combined with strong Endangered Species Act protections, provide a cooperative approach to saving salmon and steelhead from extinction."
"The steelhead situation is similar to the recent coho salmon case in Oregon," said Michael Sherwood, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who represents the plaintiffs. "In that case, the federal government also declined to list coho salmon, in deference to the state of Oregon's salmon restoration plan. After the court ruled that this was illegal, the federal government and state of Oregon finally accepted that Endangered Species Act protection for coho could proceed in conjunction with state recovery efforts for the fish. The same thing should happen for steelhead."
Sport Fishermen Support ESA Protections
Joining in the suit are several sport fly fishing groups that want to see Endangered Species Act protection for steelhead. While they are hopeful that some fishing will still be allowed, they recognize that some limited fishing restrictions may have to be put in place to save steelhead runs for the future.
Dan McDaniel, President of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers said, "Fly fishers are committed to preventing the extinction of Steelhead, and we embrace the implementation of reasonably necessary angling regulations."
In fact, in Oregon, most sport fishing continues in rivers where salmon and trout have been listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act. Oregon coho salmon and Umpqua cutthroat trout are protected under the law, but fishing continues in rivers that they inhabit, with some restrictions in place on certain rivers and tributaries where the endangered fish are especially at risk.
Jim Crenshaw of the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance said, "We'd like to see the state efforts work with the ESA listings for the steelhead and we eagerly await Governor Davis' Fish and Game appointments."
For successful spawning, steelhead require clean rivers with gravel, cold water temperatures, and woody structure in the riverbed. They often share small headwater tributaries with resident trout and juvenile coho salmon. Steelhead populations have decreased due to urbanization, logging, grazing, agricultural water diversions, and other forms of habitat loss. Listing these two steelhead groups as "threatened" could help prevent habitat destruction in the region.
The lawsuit was initiated by the Federation of Fly Fishers, California Sport Protection Alliance, Klamath Forest Alliance, Native Fish Society, Northcoast Environmental Center, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Oregon Wildlife Federation and the Siskiyou Regional Education Project.
For background materials contact:
Brian Smith, Earthjustice - Press Office 415-627-6700