First it was Puget Sound chinook and the bull trout. Then the resident orcas. Now Puget Sound steelhead have won a spot on a list no creature...

Share story






First it was Puget Sound chinook and the bull trout. Then the resident orcas. Now Puget Sound steelhead have won a spot on a list no creature would want — the federal Endangered Species List.

The announcement yesterday by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that wild Puget Sound and Hood Canal steelhead are “threatened” has been expected for more than a year. Nonetheless, it underscores the growing sense that something has gone haywire with Puget Sound’s ecosystem.

“What this is telling us is that the ecosystem from its headwaters to saltwater needs to be restored,” said Rob Masonis, of the environmental group American Rivers.

It also marks a setback for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which had tried to head off a listing by arguing it already was working to revive the species.

State Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings noted state efforts already under way could help steelhead, including an initiative to clean up Puget Sound and revive chinook.

The state also is in the final stages of creating a plan to help steelhead.

Federal officials said they had to list the fish because there is no guarantee the state will follow through on promises, NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.

“The likelihood that these animals, if they were not given ESA [Endangered Species Act] protection, would be worse off rather than better off was considerable,” he said. “So we had no choice but to list them.”

Steelhead are essentially rainbow trout, except they migrate to the ocean and return upriver to spawn as salmon do. Still, steelhead sometimes produce offspring that are rainbow trout, which don’t migrate to salt water, and vice versa.

Suit possible

It remains to be seen exactly what the listing will mean.

Not included in the protection are steelhead runs in rivers and streams on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula, which flow into the Pacific Ocean.

Nor does it cover hatchery-raised fish in Puget Sound, except for winter-run stocks on the Green and Hamma Hamma rivers.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group that repeatedly has sued to overturn Endangered Species Act listings, signaled it probably will do the same in this case.

It appears the fisheries service didn’t fully account for large populations of hatchery fish when determining whether to make the listing, foundation attorney Sonya Jones said.

But federal biologists said declines of wild steelhead populations probably stem from a combination of factors, including habitat destruction, dams and hatchery operations, as well as conditions in the ocean.

So protection for steelhead could mean new land-use restrictions along small Puget Sound rivers, changes in hatchery operations and measures to make sure enough water is kept in streams rather than siphoned off for development or agriculture.

Some of those protections are already in place along major rivers to protect chinook. But protecting the smaller, high-jumping steelhead could push those requirements into small tributaries and mountain headwaters.

“There’s lots of miles of habitat that will now be under ESA that weren’t for any species of salmon,” said Sam Wright, a retired state fisheries biologist. His petition to the fisheries service to reconsider a 1996 decision not to protect Puget Sound steelhead led to Monday’s decision.

Issue for anglers

Also undetermined is the listing’s impact on steelhead fishing. Steelhead attract a passionate, loyal group of anglers who vie for the hard-fighting fish in the middle of winter.

The state already requires fishermen to release any wild Puget Sound steelhead. Most hatchery-raised steelhead won’t be protected because they descend from a strain that isn’t native to the streams where they spawn, Gorman said.

The exceptions are the hatchery fish of the Green and Hamma Hamma rivers. Because they come from a native strain, they will be protected.

It’s possible that reforms at hatcheries could affect how many steelhead the state and tribes put into rivers.

“I’m sure we’ll be making adjustments,” said Heather Bartlett, head of the state Fish and Wildlife Department’s salmon and steelhead division.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com