SAN FRANCISCO - August 20 - 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
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
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.