Federal Court Upholds Protection For California's Wild Steelhead Trout

Water user's contention hatchery fish are adequate substitute rejected


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

Dougald Scott, Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers, 831 427-1394

Kate Miller, Trout Unlimited, (503) 827-5700

David Hogan, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 809-9244

A U.S. District Court judge has rejected an attempt by California irrigators and logging industry groups to strip protected status from five populations of wild steelhead trout. Today’s ruling rejects two separate challenges to steelhead protection in California.  In the first case, anti-environment group Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents loggers and water users, argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service must make Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing decisions based simply on the numbers of hatchery steelhead produced each year. PLF asked the court to remove five separate populations of steelhead from the list of endangered species based on the presence of hatchery fish.  In the second case, a group of Central Valley irrigators argued that ocean-going Central Valley steelhead population should be removed from the endangered species list based on their opinion that freshwater resident rainbow trout might someday replace extinct steelhead populations.

"We need wild steelhead in California’s rivers," said Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice. "Steelhead and people need clean water, swimmable streams, and healthy habitat. We all win when we protect and recover wild steelhead and their habitat," said Mashuda. 

The ruling marks the third time that federal courts on the West Coast have rejected arguments that all fish must be treated the same when making ESA listing decisions. In the other two rulings — issued in June, 2007 by a federal district judge in Seattle and in August, 2007 by a federal district judge in Oregon — the courts confirmed that wild and hatchery salmon and steelhead should be treated differently when assessing the health of a fish population. NMFS’s scientific advisors and experts unanimously concluded that it would be "biologically indefensible" to eliminate ESA protection for endangered salmon and steelhead based on the abundance of hatchery fish. Scientists emphasized that these fish need habitat to sustain themselves into the future while hatcheries rely on an artificial environment that doesn’t produce salmon and steelhead that survive well in the wild. PLF, however, asserted that NMFS was legally required to ignore these issues and simply count the total numbers of fish in making ESA listing decisions.

"With yet another court rejecting these arguments, the debate about whether these imperiled fish deserve protection should be over," said Kate Miller of Trout Unlimited. "It’s time to focus our energies back to the work of restoring this irreplaceable part of California’s natural heritage."

In addition, the court agreed with the conservation and fishing groups that NMFS may protect steelhead without including all freshwater resident rainbow trout in the protected population. Here again, the court found that protecting steelhead was supported by unanimous scientific evidence. The court’s ruling cites extensively from reports of three different committees of independent scientists who all confirmed that steelhead form the irreplaceable backbone of the population. The court concluded that "[i]t is undisputed that the steelhead life form is indispensable to the species as a whole. It would have been arbitrary for the agency to ignore to that reality."

"The science has shown time and again that even where steelhead and rainbow trout mix with one another, you have to protect steelhead or you won’t have any fish at all," said David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The irrigators were pushing a one-size-fits-all approach in an attempt to flip that presumption on its head — arguing that rainbow trout can provide the basis for removing protections from steelhead in the Central Valley."

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 percent 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 Dougald Scott of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers. "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."

Earthjustice represented the five conservation and fishing groups arguing on behalf of wild steelhead protection in these two cases, including Northern California Council, Federation of Fly Fishers, Delta Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited, and Center for Biological Diversity. 

Read the court order (Warning – large PDF) 

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