The federal government is proposing to list Puget Sound steelhead as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. The move starts the clock on a 12-month process to determine whether a listing is warranted.
An "endangered" listing means the species is in danger of extinction. "Threatened" indicates the species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
"We wouldn't be proposing to list these guys if their situation wasn't perilous," said spokesman Brian Gorman with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which proposed the listing.
"But by the same token, we think we can make some progress with the state on hatchery reform, and we will continue to look at causes for decline and signs of progress as we reach the anniversary of the proposal" on March 29, 2007.
NMFS reviewed the steelhead's status as recently as 1996, when it determined the population did not warrant a listing. But agency scientists said then they were concerned about the health of summer-run stocks — one of four annual runs — and the harmful effects of hatchery-raised steelhead on wild steelhead runs.
Since then, agency biologists have noted widespread declines in Puget Sound steelhead populations, despite reductions in the sport-fishing harvest of natural steelhead. Only hatchery-raised fish may be kept by anglers.
In September 2004, retired fish biologist Sam Wright of Olympia urged the government to list the fish, 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."
Wednesday's action comes in response to his petition.
Over the next 12 months, NMFS will work to determine the root causes of the declines, which likely include degraded habitat, blockages by dams and other man-made barriers, unfavorable ocean conditions and harmful hatchery practices.
Hatchery-raised steelhead compete with wild fish for food, weaken them genetically by interbreeding, and sometimes stay longer in streams than expected and eat the newly emerging natural fish, Wright said.
Like salmon, steelhead migrate to the ocean to grow up and return to fresh water to spawn. Unlike salmon, they can return more than once.
They're already 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.