FOER proclaims victory for Northern California summer steelhead

For immediate release:

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Alicia Hamann, Executive Director, alicia(at), 
Scott Greacen, Conservation Director, scott(at)

Northern California summer steelhead listed as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act

On Wednesday, June 16, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to list summer steelhead in four North Coast watersheds — the Eel, Mad, and Mattole Rivers, and Redwood Creek — as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The decision comes in response to Friends of the Eel River’s 2018 petition. The Commission also listed Klamath spring Chinook salmon as threatened under CESA in the same meeting, in response to a petition from the Salmon River Restoration Council and the Karuk tribe.

Steelhead are the anadromous, or sea-going, form of the fish popularly known as rainbow trout. (Though we call them trout, rainbows and steelhead are Pacific salmon: Oncorhynchus mykiss are more closely related to Chinook and coho salmon than are chum and sockeye salmon.) Most steelhead return to freshwater in winter ready to spawn. Summer steelhead follow a very different strategy. They return to their natal watersheds in spring before they are sexually mature, climb to deep, cold pools high in the mountain canyons, and hold there, without feeding, through the long, hot North Coast summer. When the rains come, summer steelhead climb higher in the watershed than most winter steelhead can, giving their progeny the chance to rear in the highest, coolest headwater streams.

The recent discovery that run timing in summer steelhead and spring Chinook is determined by a single tiny area of the genome in each species has researchers and conservationists concerned the early-return gene itself could be lost in watersheds where populations of premature migrating fish are extirpated. Unfortunately, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service has denied our petition to list Northern California summer steelhead under the federal Endangered Species Act, arguing that, except for the early return gene, the fish are more closely related to late-run fish in their respective watersheds than they are to early-run fish in other watersheds. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife took the same position, recommending against listing both species under the California Endangered Species Act.

“Fortunately, the Fish and Game Commission looked carefully at the law and the science, listened to the testimony of native peoples about their own long experience with these fish, and decided summer steelhead and spring chinook can and should be protected under the California Endangered Species Act. Protecting the biological diversity embodied in these unique life histories is essential to ensuring these species have the resilience to survive human impacts to their habitat, including climate change,” said Alicia Hamann, executive director of Friends of the Eel River. “It’s a real credit to the Fish and Game Commission that they were able to see that endangered species policy needs not only to keep up with science that is moving very quickly in this area, but also to reflect the traditional ecological knowledge of the peoples who have lived in societies interconnected with these fish for thousands of years.”

“This is an important win for truly extraordinary fish, but the listing reflects tragic facts. Our summer steelhead face extinction if we don’t help them. Their incredible life history has made them extremely vulnerable to the impacts of our industrial society. Even in the best years, fewer than a thousand adult summer steelhead now return to only six populations in Northern California.” said Scott Greacen, FOER’s conservation director. “One of the most important things we can do to help summer steelhead recover is remove Scott dam, which has blocked access for a century to the habitat of the southernmost summer steelhead run on Earth.”