Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about changes with the STEP program

Steelhead eggs for teachers in the STEP program (Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties) are no longer available for classroom incubation and the STEP program has announced their intention to cease operating this program.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with local community organizations to ensure teachers have the opportunity to continue hatching fish in their classrooms and teaching the valuable lessons associated with this process.

Below is a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding the transition and the difference in incubating steelhead and rainbow trout. Please feel free to ask more questions and they can be included here.


Why is the STEP program being shut down?

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and STEP have been partners in this program for the past 27 years. The program is not being “shut down:” the directors of STEP are choosing to cease operations. We believe the following factors influenced this action:

  • The Kingfisher Flat hatchery (operated by STEP) currently lacks a federal permit and will not be able to “take” fish until they are able to comply with all the conditions of the permitting process. While STEP has expressed desire to comply with this requirement, it will be a long and expensive process. CDFW is working with STEP to this end.
  • The drought and operational problems at the hatchery have made it impossible for STEP to provide steelhead eggs to classrooms for the past 2 years. In this time, approximately 60 new teachers have been trained by STEP and have been unable to hatch steelhead.

Will I be able to hatch fish with my students this year?

Yes you will. Rainbow trout will be made available to all STEP qualified teachers who request them.

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 anadromous (or ocean going) rainbow trout. The species are identical – except one remains in fresh water while the other goes to sea.

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. Rainbow trout are released into lakes 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. Two workshop are being offered to help teachers make the transistion. The first will be held in San Jose on January 9, 2016.  Jose on January 9 and a second session will be offered on January 13 in Santa Cruzworkshop to help teachers make this transition is being offered on January 9, 2016

Have other teachers successfully hatched rainbow trout?

Rainbow trout are the most widely hatched fish in classroom aquariums. In 2015, over 350 classes in the Bay Area alone incubated these same eggs with great success.

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 may come just once in their school career. We hate to see them miss it but, again, the decision is yours.

STEP provided excellent teacher support including assistance with permits, delivery of eggs, and help with tank operation – will this continue to be offered?

STEP did provide excellent support to teachers hatching steelhead. To date, STEP is taking a position they will provide little, if any, support. We will continue to keep the door open in hopes of their continued teacher support.

In the meantime, CDFW is working with other local organizations to fill the gap. While we cannot provide the same level of support, we will:

  • Continue to permit qualified teachers
  • Provide egg deliver to teachers at multiple sites in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties
  • Provide phone and email support for tank operation
  • Continue to work to locate a new sponsor who can provide in-class support (we are working with an organization at this time and hope to bring them online on board as local partners next season)
  • Provide curriculum and other materials to teachers at no cost
  • Offer a workshop in January 2016 to help with the transition

I understand other teachers in California are allowed to hatch steelhead – why can’t we use the same egg source as they do?

Teachers in Sonoma and Mendocino County are using steelhead eggs taken from fish in the Russian River system. To maintain the genetic integrity of the species, the fry are required to be released into the same watershed – much as the STEP fry were released into the San Lorenzo system. There simply is not a supply of steelhead eggs for the San Lorenzo system at this time.

Will steelhead be available in the future?

San Lorenzo steelhead is a federally listed species and due to conditions described above it is doubtful these will be available for classroom incubation in the future. The Classroom Aquarium Education program (of which STEP is a part) is an educational process and not a restoration program. Should the population reach the point where the Federal government de-lists the fish, then it is possible they could again be incubated in classrooms.

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? Fisheries biologists maintain that 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. Clearly, students want to believe the fry they’ve hatched will survive to a valuable ‘fish life’ whatever that may be. As such, there is no need to impress upon them the tenets of the first sentence here.

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 have been evaluated by fisheries biologists as appropriate for these fish. All releases of fish are carefully monitored by State and Federal agencies to ensure that no impacts to any other listed species can occur as a result. For many teachers, especially those in Santa Clara County, the release sites for rainbow trout will be easier to access 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.

What do I need to do at this time?

You will receive an email survey asking if you want to participate in the program this year and hatch rainbow trout. Simply fill out the survey and if you opt to continue in the program, we will send you further information and instructions.

If you are also welcome to complete the 772 application and submit it directly to CDFW.

What if I choose to not hatch fish this year – will I be able to re-join the program in the future?

Yes. However, teachers once-trained who do not hatch fish for 3 consecutive years are required to attend a training workshop to be re-certified. This is generally a one day workshop at a low cost.

Do you have more questions? Send them to

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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