Northern California Summer Steelhead to be Listed as an Endangered Species

Photo: NOAA

The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to begin the process of listing Northern California summer steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus) under the California Endangered Species Act. The commission found a petition submitted by Friends of the Eel River to list the remaining runs of summer steelhead from Redwood Creek to the Mattole River as endangered under state law presented sufficient evidence to move forward with a one-year status review prior to a final listing determination.

“We are grateful to Department of Fish and Wildlife staff for their careful review, and to the Commissioners for taking an important step toward providing these extraordinary fish the attention they deserve and the protection they need,” said Friends of the Eel River Conservation Director Scott Greacen. Ryon Kurth, Senior Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, presented the Department’s evaluation and recommendation to the Commission that the petition be accepted.

Steelhead are the anadromous, or ocean-going, form of rainbow trout. While their more numerous relatives, winter-run steelhead, return from the Pacific ready to spawn in weeks or less, summer steelhead enter freshwater between April and June as sexually immature, bright silver fish. They oversummer in cold pools, often in deep, remote canyons, before using fall rains to leap obstacles that seem impassable to humans, higher than any other salmonid.

Recent research has shown the summer steelhead life history is controlled by a critical genetic difference in one specific part of the salmonid genome. Only viable populations of summer steelhead can maintain the gene and the life history it governs.

Remaining North Coast populations are far from viability. Many are critically imperiled by climate change. However, the increasing likelihood that Scott Dam on the upper mainstem Eel River will be removed offers a real ray of hope for summer steelhead. The longest, and southernmost, run of Northern California summer steelhead vanished a century ago when the dam was built. This spring, UC Davis researchers announced they had found the summer steelhead gene in rainbow trout in the headwaters above Scott Dam, raising hope a new population of Northern California summer steelhead could be resurrected from its own locally adapted stock.

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