The National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to study whether Puget Sound steelhead deserve protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
SEATTLE The National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to study whether Puget Sound steelhead deserve protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In a petition filed in September, a retired fish biologist from Olympia urged the government to list the fish as threatened, saying, "Nearly all the river systems have distinct downward trends in population abundance and are not even coming close to replacing themselves from generation to generation."
On Tuesday, NMFS said the petition made a strong enough case to warrant a full-scale biological review.
"This is step one," NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.
A final decision is expected by Sept. 13, a year after Sam Wright, who once worked as a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, filed the petition. If the agency decides to list Puget Sound steelhead as threatened or endangered, it would not take effect until September 2006.
A threatened listing means a species faces a risk of becoming extinct. An endangered listing means a species is teetering on the brink of extinction.
Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental advocacy group People for Puget Sound, applauded the government's decision.
"Normally, their first reaction is to reject petitions, so this is a good sign," Fletcher said.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean to grow up and return to fresh water to spawn. Unlike salmon, they can return to spawn more than once.
They're listed as endangered in Washington's Upper Columbia River and in Southern California, and as threatened in most of the rest of California, in Oregon's Upper Willamette River, the Middle Columbia and Snake River Basin in Washington, and the Lower Columbia separating Washington and Oregon.
The last time NMFS conducted a biological status review of Puget Sound steelhead was in 1996. The agency determined a listing wasn't warranted at the time, but said it was concerned about the health of summer-run stocks and the harmful effects hatchery-raised salmon were having on wild steelhead runs.
Fletcher said the renewed concern for steelhead came as no surprise to her.
"It's just one more example of how the Puget Sound ecosystem is in deep trouble," Fletcher said. "You add the salmon listing to the orca listing to the herring being reviewed ... it's one more indication that what we really need is to save the ecosystem."
Puget Sound chinook and Hood Canal chum were listed as threatened in 1999, the same year several salmon stocks in the Columbia River basin won Endangered Species Act protection.
Late last year, NMFS proposed that a struggling population of killer whales that spends much of the year near Washington's San Juan Islands be listed as threatened.
Source: Associated Press