Steelhead Tough to Figure, Tough to Save

The steelhead, a prized trophy fish, is in decline on the West Coast. New federal regulations to protect it are certain to be challenged. Steelhead are closely related to more plentiful rainbow trout, with mysterious differences.

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The wild steelhead is one of the most prized trophies for sports fisherman, and it's in danger of disappearing from the West Coast. In Puget Sound alone, the number of steelhead has dropped by half in just the last five years. The federal government has come out with new regulations to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act, which is sure to trigger a new round of lawsuits.

As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the dispute is complicated by the fish itself, which appears to suffer from an acute identity crises.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

When is a rainbow trout not a trout? When it's a steelhead. Rainbow and steelhead are the same species, and yet, as angler George Pess will tell you, they're very different fish. The rainbows stick to fresh water and get up to three or four pounds. Steelhead, on the other hand, can weigh up to 20 pounds, and there's no mistaking it when you have one on the line.

Mr. GEORGE PESS (Ecologist, National Marine Fisheries Service): If you have a certain salmon on, it feels like a Hyundai, and these feel more like a Ferrari.

KASTE: Steelhead get so big because they go out to sea, like salmon. On their way home, some of them usually come through here, the Ballard shipping locks, in Seattle.

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The locks have a fish ladder where you can watch the steelhead flopping their way up the steps on their way upriver. But it's a sight that's becoming increasingly rare, and there aren't any to be seen today.

Besides being an angler, George Pess is a government ecologist who studies the steelhead around Seattle. He says there's still a lot scientists don't understand about the fish. Why do some of them head out to sea while their cousins stay home? Why is it possible for two rainbow to mate and produce a steelhead and vice versa? Does a fish choose to become a steelhead? There's a lot here that's still deeply mysterious. And Pess says one of the biggest headaches is just counting the steelhead, especially when they're young.

Mr. PESS (Ecologist, National Marine Fisheries Service): It's difficult to tell what a trout will do as a juvenile fish, as a young fish, whether it will go out to sea or not. You can't.

KASTE: The fact that scientists have trouble telling the young rainbow and steelhead apart has created an opening for people like Russ Brooks, a lawyer who represents developers and timber companies.

Mr. RUSSELL BROOKS (Managing Attorney, Pacific Legal Foundation): You don't know what you have, steelhead or rainbow trout. So, in essence, they end up protecting all of the rainbow trout.

KASTE: There are still plenty of rainbow trout. Brooks says it's ludicrous for the government to protect the plentiful rainbow just because some of them happen to go out to sea. He acknowledges steelhead and rainbow behave differently, but he says the Endangered Species Act protects species, not behaviors. He says the whole system of federal protections for fish has been built on rickety logic starting with the government's contradictory attitude towards certain game fish.

Mr. BROOKS: Threatened with extinction, on the brink, but yet, you can still go out there and what? Catch them, kill them and eat them. It's just brilliant.

KASTE: Brook's law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, has had some success in challenging the federal protections on fish species, often by arguing that the regulations are based on unreliable science. He thinks he can make a similar argument in the case of steelhead; that left-leaning scientists are creating an arbitrary distinction all in the interest of limiting logging and farming along Western rivers. But University of Washington fishery scientist Tom Quinn bristles at the suggestion that the distinction between rainbow and steelhead is somehow false.

Professor THOMAS QUINN (School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington): Our inability to discern with our eye doesn't really have any bearing on the question. A thing that may appear similar and be utterly different.

KASTE: Quinn says the lawyers battling over endangered species listings should not get hung up on the term "species." He says there are other more subtle kinds of variation between animals.

Professor QUINN: Rainbow trout and steelhead and fundamentally different forms, life history patterns, of one distinct species.

KASTE: Quinn says it may very well be that if you eliminated all the steelhead from a given river, some of the leftover rainbow trout might still morph back into steelhead at some future date, but he says killing off every last steelhead is not an experiment he's willing to try. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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