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Court upholds protections for Pacific steelhead, rebuffs farmers

August 20, 2010 |  5:51 pm

A federal appeals court panel on Friday ruled that wild steelhead remain an endangered species and rebuffed Central Valley irrigators' efforts to relax federal government protections on the Pacific salmon.

Six irrigation districts had challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service decision to list the oceangoing steelhead separately from more plentiful freshwater rainbow trout on grounds that the two fish interbreed and the steelhead were therefore protected from extinction. Both types of Pacific salmon are born in freshwater, but the steelhead migrate to the ocean while rainbow trout remain in rivers and lakes.

Wild steelhead once returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems in the millions each year, but their population has dwindled by 95% due to excessive water use, pollution, dam construction and urban sprawl, Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda argued on behalf of a group of conservationists and fishing enthusiasts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the steelhead were in need of separate classification, despite their interbreeding. The two salmon species grow to different sizes and have different predators and prey, the court noted, adding that abundant steelhead can regenerate dwindling rainbow trout stocks "but the reverse does not seem to be the case."

The ruling was hailed by the environmental and fishing groups who intervened to defend the government agency against the irrigators' lawsuit. "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.

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Steelhead were once found in abundance all along the Pacific Coast. In 2003, the last steelhead trout in Devil Canyon, near Camp Pendleton, was sighted and photographed by a California Fish and Game biologist. Environmentalists fear the fish will become extinct in Northern California too.  Credit: Los Angeles Times