The fabled Lothlórien steelhead


I know little about Sean Parker’s  fairyland wedding and care less. If a couple, seeking an experience that is “spiritual, though not overtly religious,” decides to tie the knot in an ersatz “Lothlórien,” that’s cool with me. But I do care about trout, so one paragraph in Parker’s recent longform defense of his nuptials stuck like a fishbone in my craw:

Then there was this question of a certain fish, the “steelhead trout,” that was purportedly threatened by our wedding preparation. The media reported that this fish was an “endangered” species whose spawning ground was a creek near our wedding site. Yet a simple Google query of “steelhead trout” reveals that this fish is not, as the media had reported, a truly “endangered” species, but rather a fancy variant of the common “rainbow trout” that is abundant across North America — so abundant, in fact, that it is sometimes considered a pest species. (The steelhead, like salmon, travels upstream and spends its life in the ocean. This variant of the rainbow trout has seen its populations fall in some areas of California where it is protected, but it’s hardly the endangered species the press made it out to be. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation reports that rainbow trout is “not at risk of extinction.”)

Here we see a perfect example of the dangers of constructing one’s worldview from snippets of factual material googled out of the web. Parker’s argument proceeds something like this:

Steelhead trout are variants of rainbow trout.

Rainbow trout are in some settings considered invasive.

Steelhead aren’t worth worrying about.

The logic’s fishy, and the conclusion’s dead wrong. Most rainbow trout live their lives in freshwater streams or lakes. Steelhead are distinguished by their oceangoing nature. They hatch in fresh water and then — traveling downstream, not upstream — they head out to sea, where they can swim great distances before eventually returning back to their freshwater spawning grounds. This distinctive habit gives them different behavioral and physical characteristics from their more common freshwater brethren. (It’s what makes them “fancy,” in Parker’s terminology.) Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the steelhead of the central California coast is considered a “distinct population segment” and “qualifies for protection as a separate species.”

Rainbow trout are vigorous fish and, due to their value as game, they’re often bred in hatcheries and stocked in waters where they’re not native. They’ve become invasive in some areas, crowding out other, native trout species. This says absolutely nothing about the steelhead variant. Steelhead are wild fish, and they are not pests. And the fact that rainbows are generally plentiful — though, it’s important to note, the cold, clean waters that can support trout are in long-term decline — also says absolutely nothing about the steelhead variant.  The habitat of steelhead, like that of the salmon whose oceangoing behavior they share, has long been threatened.

Parker quotes the National Wildlife Federation as saying that rainbow trout are “not at risk of extinction.” He leaves out the NWF’s important caveat: “Native populations, though, are threatened by disease, habitat degradation, and fishing.” That’s particularly true of steelhead, which the NWF, together with other conservation organizations, has been working hard to protect for many years. Steelhead are a fish in peril, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  Marine Fisheries Service recognizes:


I wish Sean Parker a long and happy marriage. I only ask that, in the future, he keep his scare quotes away from steelhead trout. Steelhead may be plentiful and invasive in Lothlórien, but in the real world they’re neither.