Steelhead Trout: Spearhead Species for Recovering Yuba Salmon

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Steelhead are a close cousin of salmon and share many of the same magnificent qualities which are so important to our watersheds.  Most importantly, they are anadromous, meaning that their growth occurs primarily in the ocean. The habitat that they require of rivers is also similar to that of salmon.  When we work to restore Yuba salmon, we work to restore steelhead too.

Juvenile steelhead spend one to four years in streams or rivers before entering the ocean compared to only a few months for Chinook salmon. Another difference is that steelhead can ascend much higher into small tributaries and steeper sections of the watershed.  As the more freshwater-dependent and athletic cousin, steelhead are more apt than salmon for taking advantage of watershed restoration efforts.

Rainbow trout are the same species as the steelhead, or the resident (non-anadromous) form of Oncorhynchus mykiss. Anglers favor both types, but true steelhead, which can grow to 30” and in excess of 25 lbs, are the ultimate sportfish.  Unfortunately, steelhead of the Central Valley are Threatened with extinction according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Steelhead are rare in the lower Yuba River even though rainbow trout are abundant.  Managed flows and poor survival in Sacramento River Delta are implicated for keeping steelhead depressed.  Hatchery production on the Feather River and elsewhere may also be impacting the wild population. None of these factors compares, however, to the loss of habitat upstream of Englebright Dam. NMFS estimates that as much as 216 miles are no longer accessible compared to the 24 miles currently available in the lower Yuba River.

Through the Yuba Salmon Campaign, SYRCL is working to restore natural river flows through relicensing, rehabilitate mining-impacted sections of the river, and reintroduce anadromous salmonids to the upper watershed.   As we begin to achieve these ambitious objectives, expect steelhead to more quickly and thoroughly exploit the success.  They are a welcome part of the family.

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