Puget Sound steelhead have been listed as a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service says.
The agency proposed the listing about a year ago to cover naturally spawned steelhead from river basins in Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the eastern half of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Also covered by the listing are two winter-run hatchery stocks: the Green River natural south of Seattle and the Hamma Hamma River on the Olympic Peninsula.
Agency biologists said the decline in the steelhead population has been widespread, likely because of degraded habitat, man-made barriers, unfavorable ocean conditions and harmful hatchery practices.
The steelhead listing will help focus more attention on the condition of Puget Sound, said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"I don't think there's going to be an enormous change over and above protections already afforded to Puget Sound chinook (salmon)," Gorman said Monday. "My guess is the steelhead listing is going to refocus concentration and effort improving Puget Sound water quality and keeping it clean."
Also on Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed a former Environmental Protection Agency director, Bill Ruckelshaus, to lead Washington state's effort to clean up Puget Sound. She made the announcement as she gave final approval to a new cleanup agency that hopes to attract attention and money from the federal government.
The Northwest chapter of the environmental group American Rivers praised Monday's steelhead action.
"Anyone who has had the privilege of fishing for or watching wild steelhead on Puget Sound rivers knows why we must restore them. Steelhead are a wild symbol of this place and a reason why so many of us love living here," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers.
Puget Sound has three other fish species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act: Puget Sound chinook salmon, Hood Canal summer-run chum salmon and bull trout.
Steelhead are a popular game fish.
The steelhead in Monday's listing include more than 50 stocks of summer- and winter-run fish. The Skagit and Snohomish rivers support the largest populations.
An "endangered" species is in danger of extinction. A "threatened" species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.