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Scientists Mull Including Rainbow Trout with Steelhead Tallies

by Associated Press
Capital Press - January 10, 2003

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Federal fisheries biologists are considering whether rainbow trout that live their entire lives in rivers should be treated under the Endangered Species Act as genetically identical to steelhead that migrate to the ocean.

Despite assurances from the National Marine Fisheries Service that they are only trying to consider the best science available, environmentalists distrustful of the Bush administration fear the review may lead to taking West Coast steelhead off the endangered species list by boosting their populations with rainbow trout.

"It has all the earmarks of another end-around," said Alan Moore of Trout Unlimited.

Property rights advocates endorsed the review, saying they hoped it would lead to lifting protections that have blocked development of private land.

"It's long overdue," said Russell Brooks, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which won a federal court ruling declaring NMFS cannot treat hatchery salmon differently from wild salmon if they are in the same population.

Brooks said he will file a lawsuit challenging Endangered Species Act protection for four steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin based on the argument that they are genetically identical to rainbow trout.

The NMFS review traces its roots to the ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who found that NMFS could not impose Endangered Species Act protection for wild coho salmon in the Alsea River if id did not protect genetically identical hatchery coho that were in the same population, known as an evolutionarily significant unit, or ESU.

Based on that, NMFS decided to review the Endangered Species Act listings of 19 of the 25 different ESUs of West Coast salmon and steelhead that include hatchery fish.

In the Dec. 31 Federal Register, NMFS said it would expand that review to include Snake River sockeye salmon and the Southern California ESU of steelhead.

In addition, it would review the connections between rainbow trout and steelhead, an issue raised in a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Defense Center and the Center for Biological Diversity. The lawsuit sought expansion of protection of steelhead in Southern California to include those trapped behind dams.

"It became clear to us there is a problem, and it's best if we go ahead and do a review from top to bottom of all those ESUs and make new determinations using all the same frameworks to do so," said Garth Griffin, branch chief of the Protected Resources Division of NMFS. "We're not predetermining anything here."

Results are due in November, with final determinations following public review scheduled for spring of 2004.

Steelhead and rainbow trout are the same species, Oncorhynchus mykiss, but have different life histories. Steelhead are born in freshwater and migrate to the ocean, where they mature before returning to their native streams to spawn. Rainbow trout live out their lives in freshwater.

"It's a reasonable concern that the anti-environmental Bush administration might be seeking an opportunity here to remove endangered species protections for steelhead," said David Hogan, rivers program coordinator for The Center for Biological Diversity. "But delisting can't be justified because extinction of the anadromous fish means the extinction of native resident rainbows."

According to the NMFS' Alaska Fisheries Science Center Quarterly, research indicates steelhead and rainbows in Oregon's Deschutes River do not generally interbreed, but in at least one British Columbia river they do.

The lab has launched a research project on southeast Alaska' Sashin Creek.

Robert J. Behnke, professor emeritus at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and author of the book "Trout and Salmon of North America," said NMFS would make a "horrendous mistake" lumping the two together.

In California's Sacramento River, for example, where rainbows are plentiful but steelhead are threatened, there would be no way to protect the steelhead, Behnke said.

"There are no genetic differences by the technique used to define that genetic difference," said Behnke. "But there are obviously genetic differences that determine this migratory behavior. Very slight, but real."

He noted that the inner ear bones of steelhead contain the chemical element strontium from living in the ocean while the ear bones of rainbows do not. Tests on 30 Deschutes River steelhead showed all had mothers that were steelhead and 28 rainbows showed all had mothers that were rainbows.

Behnke added that steelhead raised in hatcheries were more likely to interbreed with rainbows than wild steelhead.

Associated Press
Scientists Mull Including Rainbow Trout with Steelhead Tallies
Capital Press - January 10, 2003

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