At its June 16, 2021 meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to protect Klamath Spring Chinook salmon and Northern California summer steelhead under the California Endangered Species Act.
Spring Chinook and summer steelhead return to freshwater much earlier than their fall-run Chinook and winter-run steelhead counterparts. These unique life histories allow them to reach prime spawning and rearing habitats in the cool waters of our mountain streams. Recent genetic research has shown these remarkable life histories are driven by differences in a singular, very small part of the salmonid genome. Following the best available science, our petitions to list these extraordinary fish under California law argued that if we do not effectively protect remaining populations of spring chinook and summer steelhead, we will lose the critical genetic information that drives their unique life histories.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) agreed in its status reviews of Klamath spring chinook and Northern California summer steelhead that remaining populations of these fish are tiny fractions of their historic numbers, and that they face a range of severe threats including climate change. DFW concedes as well that run timing in spring chinook and summer steelhead is largely determined by the recently identified genes, and that it is important to maintain these life histories. DFW’s status review affirms that summer steelhead, for example, are “an important diversity component … that should be preserved.”
Unfortunately, DFW then follows the lead of the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which has denied petitions to list Klamath Spring chinook and Northern California summer steelhead. The fisheries agencies say summer steelhead are not reproductively isolated enough from winter steelhead to list.
But one key piece of evidence they point to — a relatively high proportion of fish that have both winter and summer-return genes — is a result of the collapse of summer steelhead populations, even relative to winter steelhead populations, over the 20th century. Today, fewer than a thousand adult summer steelhead return to streams in California. More than half are in the Middle Fork Eel River alone.
The agencies point to research showing spring chinook and summer steelhead share more of their genes with fall chinook and winter steelhead in their watersheds than they do with spring chinook and summer steelhead in adjoining watersheds. But every population that remains is at grave risk of extinction! Is it really more important to protect our shaky concepts of “species” in salmon and steelhead than it is to protect the few remaining examples of the highest-climbing steelhead on the planet?
Please take a few minutes today to write to the members of the Fish and Game Commission.
Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, June 11th or join the meeting virtually on Wednesday June 16th and give up to three minutes of comments on the agenda item. Click here for instructions on joining the meeting virtually. The link will be updated prior to the meeting.
Suggested Talking Points
- It is extremely important to preserve diverse life histories and the wild genetics that give rise to them, especially given climate change. Diverse genetics and life histories increase a species’ resilience and ability to adapt to changes in their environment.
- If extirpated, spring and summer run life histories are extremely unlikely to evolve again from fall and winter runs. The allele that controls run timing evolved once and spread through many different watersheds. And spring and summer run timing is unlikely to evolve again from fall and winter varieties because heterozygotes have an intermediate run timing.
- DFW’s own analysis shows that Klamath spring chinook and Northern California summer steelhead are in danger of extinction and should be preserved.