FAQs – Hatching Rainbow Trout VS Steelhead Trout

Steelhead eggs for teachers in the STEP program (Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties) were not available again this year (2015) due to a fungal issue at the hatchery. CDFW made rainbow trout eggs available to all eligible teachers as an alternative. The response from teachers was positive as was the classroom experience. Below is a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding the difference in incubating steelhead and rainbow trout. Please feel free to ask more questions and they can be included here.

What are the differences in raising rainbow versus steelhead trout? The fish are identical in almost every way. Your existing equipment is fine and you hatch and raise rainbow in the same manner as steelhead trout.

What are the differences between steelhead and rainbow trout? A steelhead is an andromous (or ocean going) rainbow trout. The species are identical – except one remains in fresh water while the other goes to sea.

Will steelhead be available next year (2016)? We simply do not know at this time. A combination of drought induced low water flows and persistent operational problems at the hatchery continue are taking their toll. Both the State and Federal agencies are not allowing release of eggs or fish from the hatchery at this time.

Is it true that releasing steelhead helps rebuild the population while releasing rainbow trout just provides food for predators or fish to be caught by anglers? Almost every fish released as a part of the classroom incubation program will become food for a predator regardless of whether you release salmon, steelhead or rainbow trout. The process of hatching and releasing fish in classrooms is an educational program and not intended to supplement fish stocking or restoration efforts. The value of raising fish in the classroom has more to do with what happens in the minds and hearts of the student than in the lake or river where the fish are released.

Will using my tank for rainbow trout “contaminate” the equipment and make it unusable should steelhead be available in coming years? Absolutely not. Steelhead and rainbow are essentially the same fish. You should use the same protocols for cleaning your tank as you do every other year.

I have heard CDFW is offering “sterile stocker trout” eggs that can only be released into “enclosed compounds” – what exactly does this mean?

Rainbow trout are native to California. As a matter of fact, rainbow trout were “discovered” and named in Redwood Creek in Berkeley in the mid 1880s. These fish are the brood stock used to provide eggs for hatching in classrooms. The eggs are “sterilized” so that if the fish survive, they cannot breed with wild strains of native rainbows. This is standard procedure for all fish planted by CDFW. The term “enclosed compound” simply refers to a lake as opposed to a stream to help protect wild anadromous fishes.

Can I still teach about anadromous life cycles if I hatch rainbow trout?

Absolutely. Students can compare and contrast life cycles and stages of various fishes. CDFW has extensive materials available all correlated to NGSS and Common Core.

Have other teachers successfully hatched rainbow trout? Rainbow trout are the most widely hatched fish in classroom aquariums. In 2015, over 300 classes in the Bay Area alone incubated these same eggs with great success.

Will steelhead eggs be available next year? At this time, we do not know.

Have other teachers made this switch? In 2014, teachers in Sonoma County faced a similar issue and were also offered rainbow trout as an alternative. Almost all of the teachers in that program opted to hatch rainbow trout and had a very successful year. They taught many of the same lessons and felt it was a success. Many of those teachers inquired about continuing with rainbow trout in the future.

What is best for the students?

This is a decision for you, the classroom teacher, to make. CDFW sees the value of students hatching fish in classroom aquariums, regardless of whether they are rainbow trout, steelhead trout, salmon, or other species. For students lucky enough to have a teacher certified to hatch fish under this program, the opportunity will come just once in their school career. We hate to see them miss it but again, the decision is yours.

Why can’t I release the fish in the same place I did in previous years? These fish are of a different genetic strain than the fish used in the past and may only be released into lakes that has been evaluated as appropriate for these fish. The release of fish is carefully monitored by State and Federal agencies. For many teachers, especially those in Santa Clara County, the release sites for rainbow trout will be easier as the release sites are closer to the school and to where students live.

Why do I have to pick up the eggs instead of having them delivered to my classroom? Volunteers from the STEP program have provided the egg delivery service to your classroom for many years. In the past, they have opted to not assist teachers hatching rainbow trout. CDFW is working with several other organizations to provide as much support to teachers as possible.

Can someone else pick up my eggs for me? Absolutely. You may have a co-teacher, parent, spouse or friend pick up the eggs. They will need to arrive and tell the staff who they are picking up for.

Do you have more questions? Send them to ethan.rotman@wildlife.ca.gov.

About Ethan Rotman

Ethan Rotman (Bayareatic) manages and coordinates programs that hatch fish in classrooms for the San Francisco Bay Area. He also chairs the committee that manages these programs throughout the state. Ethan has worked with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for over 20 years.
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